The Things We Can (and Can’t) Control

Read time: 5 minutes

In this edition

As the parent of a special needs child, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the subject of control. The reality is that I have very little control over what my son does. About the only things I can control are how I act.

It’s a short step from there to the realization that this is true for most things in life.

This week I’m sharing some thoughts on how little actual control we have as leaders, and how our ability to get things done relies not just on our personal ability to influence people, but how we structure our organizations.

As always, let me know what you think. Just reply to this email, and thanks for reading!

The Things We Can Control

Much of leadership revolves around matters of control. Leaders are in positions where they have an outsized influence on the performance of a company. Our decisions impact large groups of people and can even determine the fate of the company. Yet the reality is that most of the control we exert is indirect in nature.

We can separate the idea of control into three categories: things we **actually control**, things we can influence but not directly control, and things that are completely out of our power. It’s worth keeping these things in mind in nearly every aspect of work: planning and budgeting, hiring and firing, process control, team meetings, and more.

Direct Control

As I intimated above, the only things you can truly control are how YOU act. These include

  1. Your preparation: A large part of your effectiveness and impact as a leader will depend on your preparation. This encompasses a range of skills that relate to situational understanding.
  2. Your agency: You won’t get anywhere unless you allow yourself to take initiative, make decisions, and move forward with confidence.
  3. Your reactions: You can’t always control outcomes, but you can control you react to them.
  4. Your time: A leader’s most valuable currency is their time. Deciding how to spend it, which tasks to prioritize, and when to delegate, is therefore paramount.
  5. Your self-awareness: In each of us is the power to learn and grow in, whether it’s personal development or professional skills.

Influence, but Not Direct Control

  1. Team morale and culture: Leaders can shape and influence culture and morale, but you can’t directly control how each team member feels or behaves.
  2. Others’ perceptions: In a more tangible way, leaders can influence how others see them through their actions and communication, but you can’t directly control others’ thoughts or opinions.
  3. Outcomes: Well-designed and executed actions provide our best hope for performance, even if factors out of our control have a material impact on results.

Total Lack of Control

  1. External factors: Political, social, and economic factors are quite obviously not within our span of control. Sometimes they work in our favor, sometimes they don’t.
  2. Actions of unrelated parties: The professional side of force majeure.

Misconceptions of Control

Where I see leaders struggling, it is often because they assumed they have controlled a situation without recognizing it is not in their control, and that they therefore must work to exert influence. This happens with people and plans. For example:

  1. Controlling people: Leaders can guide, mentor, and influence, but trying to control team members can lead to decreased morale and increased turnover. This is even true with direct reports. An ideal leadership posture is collaboration to achieve the best outcomes. Leaders want to give direct reports a goal, not provide them with turn-by-turn directions. (read more)
  2. Predicting the future: While we can forecast based on data and create strategically and tactically sound plans, we can be undone by unforeseen events.
  3. Avoiding failure: We can take steps to mitigate risks, but we will never always prevent failures. (The key is in how we respond.)

Improving Transmission

When I advise leaders on execution, my goal is to essentially help them improve transmission of their aims so they are more impactful. The four factors of execution help us do that.


The vision provides the overarching strategic direction for the organization. In terms of control, it allows leaders to steer efforts towards long-term objectives, even when day-to-day control over specific outcomes is limited. By clearly articulating the vision, leaders influence the alignment of their team’s efforts with organizational goals.


Structure defines the architecture within which teams operate. It includes the goals, organizational design, and processes which effectively define who is responsible for doing what and how. Effective structures help channel the influence of leaders by setting clear pathways for decision-making and action, which in turn enhances the predictability and efficiency of outcomes.


Conversations are the medium through which influence is most directly felt. Open, consistent, two-way communication fosters an environment where ideas and feedback flow upwards and downwards. This influences the organizational climate and employee behavior more effectively than direct control mechanisms. Conversations enable leaders to guide, mentor, and inspire, shaping the organization’s culture and collective mindset.


People are the ultimate carriers of the organization’s vision and structure. Choosing the right people and placing them in roles where they can most effectively contribute allows leaders to extend their influence. By empowering skilled and motivated individuals, leaders can ensure that their vision is executed, and structures are adhered to, even when they’re not looking.


Understanding what can be controlled, what can only be influenced, and what is beyond control is critical for effective leadership. Integrating this understanding with a clear vision, robust structure, open lines of communication, and the right people allows leaders to effectively translate their limited direct control into broader influence. By doing this, you can create an environment where people exhibit greater alignment with the overarching objectives of the organization, and goals are more consistently achieved.

LinkedIn Roundup

When you’re ready, there are two other ways I can help. Email me at for more information.

Business Advisory

I help growth-stage leaders and investors in B2B tech-enabled services businesses align strategy with execution. I focus on the twin engines of execution excellence—process and people—to transform your business, paving the way for growth and enhanced profitability.

Transaction Support

With 20+ years of operating experience and a substantial M&A track record, I help investors evaluate strategic and operational strengths and weaknesses and navigate post-deal risks to unlock value.

Subscribe to the newsletter

Join a community of leaders committed to impact and growth with integrity. Our weekly Great Exec/ution newsletter provides proven tips, strategies and resources to scale your business and your career (and I will never spam you or sell your info!)

Share this article

Helping leaders
outperform.  scale up.  grow in confidence.  find balance. build great teams. achieve excellence.

Start here