Why Control Freaks Are Natural Leaders

Last Updated Aug 29, 2011 6:17 PM EDT

Why Control Freaks Are Natural LeadersIf you work for one or live with one, I guarantee you're not going to like this post. But like it or not, the characteristics that make control freaks insufferable jerks may be the unwanted flipside of what makes them natural leaders.

Now, before you hit the delete key or flame me, note that we've spent quite a bit of time on the negative qualities of control freaks, i.e. that they're typically overly demanding, micromanaging, bullying, untrusting, aggressive, compulsive, paranoid, stress monsters.

Even worse, their self-image doesn't begin to comprehend what a pain in the butt they truly are. Nevertheless, control freaks can and often do make very good, successful leaders. Why is that one of the best-kept secrets in the business world? Two reasons:

  • For one thing, control freaks tend to keep pretty busy, well, controlling, running companies, bossing people around, and generating gobs of free cash flow. And, as I said, they probably don't even know what they are. So they're not talking.
  • Also, just about everyone with something to say about control freaks and leadership is either pandering to the masses of oppressed workers to promote a book, has limited real-world leadership experience, or both.
Not me. I've got no skin in the game, point to prove, axe to grind, bone to pick, and more to the point, no book to promote. I'm just here to offer insights into the types of people you're likely to run into in the workplace and how to deal with them when you do. Also, you just might find some clues into your own behavior along the way.

In any case, here are four reasons Why Control Freaks Are Natural Leaders:
1. By nature, they're results oriented problem solvers
Controlling and obsessive compulsive characteristics are two sides of the same coin. People with those traits can barely walk down the street or around the office without seeing one thing after another that needs fixing or can be done more effectively.

While a lot of what they home in on is trivial, some of it isn't. Maybe it's just probability, but sooner or later control freaks will latch onto some tough, hairy problems and, for reasons we'll get into in a moment, they're uniquely capable of solving them. They're natural problem solvers.

And you know what that means? It means they really get off on fixing things and getting things done. I'd go as far as to say that accomplishing things, putting notches in their belt, are all like drugs that control freaks are addicted to. They crave it; they love it; they salivate for it. They're naturally results oriented. That and problem solving are critical leadership traits.

2. They've got something to prove and believe they're special
As we discussed in CEOs Are Just Like You - Without All the Whining, successful executives have often experienced significant adversity early in life, are unusually smart and instinctive, are natural survivors, have something to prove, believe they're special, and can be like pit bulls when it comes to their vision.

And while they're not special - we're all made of the same flesh and blood - they don't know that. And the belief that they're destined for great things is often self-fulfilling.

Incidentally, if you ask these folks if they think they're special, they'll say no. Conscious thought is one thing, but on some subconscious level, they do believe they're special. And that belief, combined with the need to prove themselves, is likely to be the most powerful motivating force in their lives.

All that goes hand-in-hand with controlling behavior, although successful executives usually learn to keep that behavior in check and delegate effectively. Nevertheless, it's in them.

3. They're often driven by a compulsive need to get attention and be adored
Many, if not most people who exhibit controlling behavior are also narcissistic, to some extent. I wouldn't quite call them two sides of the same coin, but I would venture to say they often go hand-in-hand.

Like it or not, that's a powerful drive in leadership and probably one of the most identifiable characteristics in charismatic people. Sure, genuine humility and a healthy sense of humor are also characteristics of charismatic leaders that aren't linked to controlling behavior.

Still - and here's a twist - believe it or not, in their relentless drive to be liked, narcissists can often do a pretty good job of faking genuine characteristics like humility and humor. That's what drives many entertainers and comedians.

Back to executives and leaders, as long as their capability holds up, i.e. they perform and their companies succeed, that facade can go on almost indefinitely.

4. Anecdotally speaking, they're out there in great numbers
If you read Are You a Control Freak? then you know that I'm a control freak. Not only that, but I've known and worked with literally hundreds like me or worse. Anecdotally speaking, I'd say a relatively significant percentage of senior executives and entrepreneurs in the tech industry and beyond exhibit controlling behavior. What percentage? I don't know; I never counted.

Just as notable, my list would include some names you'd recognize as some of the more successful entrepreneurs and CEOs around: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Ellison, just to drop a few names. But for every name you'd recognize, I can list dozens you've never heard of. Sure, that's just one guy's experience, but it's one guy with 30 years under his belt. And I do get around.

Also, have you ever wondered why there are so many books and blogs on the subject? Because, there's a lot to write about, i.e. controlling leaders, executives, and managers are out there, and in very big numbers.

Caveat, etc.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that, in practice, those same characteristics, in the extreme, can result in some pretty dysfunctional, self-limiting, even self-destructive behavior. In the latter case, you definitely don't want to be around - especially as an employee or investor - when that happens, that's for sure.

Nevertheless, nobody's perfect, there's a natural yin and yang to the universe, and try as you might, you simply can't have the good without the bad. Human behavior isn't black and white; it's a balancing act that's measured in degrees.

Find me a leader without significant negative qualities and I'll show you someone you just don't know well enough or haven't observed under the right conditions.

There simply are no ideal leaders, managers, or bosses, just as there are no ideal employees, coworkers, spouses, friends, or anything else human, for that matter. That's just how it is, like it or not.

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