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Is Control the Answer?

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I don't think it's an accident that corporations and governments have similar structures.

CEOs are a lot like kings and presidents. They've got power and perks and deniability. They order people around, pretend to be infallible and are apparently hired to think big thoughts.

Obviously, this started with tribal chieftains, Alexander the Great and the Pope and evolved from there. Top down authority is a very effective way to run certain types of organizations -- more hierarchy gives you more efficiency and control when facing a stable enemy or objective.

Of course, if you're in politics, control is a great thing, because you get to be in charge. Being king is the goal, whether your name is Cheney or Clinton.

But in business, we're seeing a divergence. Quite suddenly, markets and systems are changing so fast that top down control isn't the asset it used to be.

If you run a big factory, of course you need control. Control over when your workers come in, what they do, what they make, what happens to your inventory, where it's sold, how it's priced, everything. More control equals more profits, at least if the market is stable.

But if your business deals in ideas, control will stifle them. If your organization deals with the public, control will inevitably alienate your best customers. When United Airlines tries to control the way customers deal with their policies, they end up with United Breaks Guitars, not profits or market share.

Worse still, a rapidly changing competitive environment means that control is a losing strategy. Record companies tried to control technology and they lost. AT&T thought they could control how people used a telephone and they lost as well.

Is there any doubt that the world is going to go faster, not slower? Any doubt that non-state actors are going to have more influence on world affairs than ever before? Any doubt that technology will continue pushing us along a slippery slope where control is not a winning strategy?

Control might be the goal of a typical politician, but the future belongs to linchpins, individuals with leverage, people willing to make a difference and do work that matters.

The linchpin doesn't yearn for the days when she used to be able to exert control. She doesn't run around wildly trying to assemble new tools and new rules to assert control once again. Instead, the linchpin sees that leadership can work without formal control, that flexible networks actually deliver more leverage, not less.

It means playing a different game, though. Power in a world without control doesn't happen just because you're elected or appointed or have a great title. Now, power comes from connection and leadership and respect. The way you treat people (all of them, even those without apparent authority) comes back to you again and again, which means that our new leaders embrace dignity and respect instead of the traditional trappings of top down organizations.

Autocrats like Chainsaw Al Dunlap, Fidel Castro and Dick Cheney are going to have a much harder time achieving power in an environment where so much change is coming at us so fast. Are you betting on tomorrow being more or less interesting than yesterday?

Seth Godin is a blogger and the author of Linchpin, Are You Indispensable?

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