Wednesday, March 10, 2010


As a management instructor and consultant, I have periodically heard managers bemoan their lack of "control" in various settings. My typical response to that remark is that control is an illusion; there is really no such thing. At best, all we can hope to achieve is influence. I came to this conclusion, an epiphany really, several years ago during a white water rafting trip.

My buddies and I got stuck in a fairly aggressive section of river. There were rocks and white water waves everywhere. Fearing our immediate capsizing, we paddled like mad to keep our line in the river. The boat was heaving like a bucking bronco and many of my compatriots were holding on for dear life. Despite our frantic exertions, our efforts seemed to have little effect. After awhile we were unable to maintain our furious paddling pace and one by one my friends quite paddling at all. With each person who quit I noticed that our heaving was subsiding, though the river was no less riled. We were still rocking around quite a bit, but the ride was much smoother and significantly so.

As an experiment, I asked my friends to again put their back into their oars and paddle vigorously. They complied ( reluctantly, I think ) and again we were soon being shaken about. When we ceased paddling, again, our lot was much better in terms of our comfort. In fact, we found that we did not have to hold on as tightly as we had been.

I learned a lot from that experience. While I thought I was controlling the situation, my efforts were actually making matters worse. There was no way I was going to control the river, its size and strength were far beyond mine. But I did not have to control it. Like playing a musical instrument, it is important to know when and how to apply force, too much and you confuse the situation, too little and you lose any influence you truly do have. Rather than paddling crazily, it's better to apply small actions at the right time. Managing organizations and people is no different.

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