Leadership vs. Control by Guilt and Fear

In a recent post, Carman de Voer noted the distinction between leadership and management. These two different functions often converge within a particular role, but tend to draw upon different kinds of power. Management is associated with control, which is a highly reputable value and principle in most organizations. The process of management itself has been described as a feedback loop: managers “plan, organize and control” the work of the organization.

We have come to learn that the only relatively simple systems are subject to control in this sense; the interactions between the elements of more complex systems result in unpredictable outcomes. For this reason, particularly where the intelligence, creativity and committed contributions of organizational members are important to organizational outcomes, we have seen a shift from an emphasis on management to an emphasis on leadership.

Whereas management tends to rely on external rewards and punishments, leadership, particularly transformative leadership, seeks to align the self-actualization of organizational members with the self-actualization of the organization (the achievement of the organization’s mission and vision).

However, because leaders and managers, are still accountable for the contributions of their people, and their own jobs and careers are at stake, they usually feel some urgency around results.

The word “urgency” points to both importance and fear or anxiety. Another common term, which is used in conjunction with urgency is “edge.” (It might be useful to notice that intense focus and forward motion driven by vision and purpose, absent fear, has a very different tone).

Leaders then, very often experience some level of fear or anxiety — conscious or unacknowledged — and, the most common reaction to fear is to try to control others.

It’s useful to pause for a moment to consider: how do we, ourselves, attempt to exert control? What are the options? I once attended a workshop on power dynamics in which participants paired up on either side of a line. Each side was given the instruction that to win, they needed to get the other person to come over to their side of the line. Participants utilized a variety of strategies — including pleading, promising, guilting and dragging each other across.

In Spiritual Selling, sales and marketing expert, Joe Nunziata, describes the often unconscious strategies that people use to control others, and how these strategies are often employed in the workplace:

“Guilt [and shame] is the weapon of choice used by parents to control their children. […] In most cases, parents are not using guilt on a conscious level. They have absorbed guilt […] for generations and passed it on to their children. Innately parents know they can use this guilt to manipulate and control their children. Once the power of guilt is realized, it is then used in all areas of life. People begin to recognize the power of guilt in other situations. It can be applied to relationships, employees, coworkers, friends, and family. […]

“The desire to control and manipulate is driven by fear. The ego believes it will be safe if it can control people and the environment. This is why so-called control freaks are always micromanaging all aspects of work and the people involved with a project. There is an inherent fear that losing complete control of the situation will have disastrous results. […]”

“These same guilt and manipulation techniques are used in the business world. A sales manager may use the exact same process to motivate his or her people. Making salespeople feel they are not doing a good job can trigger similar feelings of guilt and shame. The intent is that they will start to feel bad and then have the desire to work harder. [Those who have read this blog for some time will recognize this dynamic as “The Wheel of Fear.”] The effectiveness of this approach depends on the makeup of the indiviudal. If similar techniques were used effectively by our parents they will transfer into the business world as well. You will be susceptible to the feelings of guilt you experienced as a child. […] Guilt and fear have long been viewed as the only way to motivate performance. Although the world has changed and some organizations are embracing more postiive techniques, a large majority are still trapped in this model. It is important to realize how powerful these unconscious traits are and how difficult they are to break…” (46-49).

Of course, external rewards, such as salary increases, bonuses, promotion, political capital, etc. are the “carrot” of this “carrot-and-stick” approach.

Hence, the organization tends to take on the characteristics of the family — too often, a dysfunctional one.

Transformational leadership, on the other hand, taps into a substantially different power dynamic in which the leader speaks to team members’ intrinsic motivations, to align the self-actualization of each team member with the self-actualization of the team or organization. In my opinion, coaching is a key component of transformational leadership. It cultivates the intelligent, creative energy of team members towards the achievement of overarching, meaningful goals. While recognizing distinctions in roles, it respects all organizational members, and builds the health and capability of the system…

What is the difference between healthy and unhealthy organizations?
How can we cultivate ever more healthy organizations?

Christie, L. “Getting Off Your Wheel of Fear” http://www.creativeleadercoach.com/2008/05/30/getting-off-your-wheel-fear/

Ibid. “Leaping Off the Hampster Wheel of Fear” http://www.creativeleadercoach.com/2008/06/15/leaping-off-the-hamster-wheel-of-fear/

De Voer, C. “Promethius and Transformative Leadership.”

Nunziata, J. Spiritual Selling. Hoboken, N.J., Wiley, 2007.


  1. carman de voer says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Once again, your exquisite examination of the dimensions of leadership brought me to the mouth of the cave [psychic prison] and enabled me to more fully comprehend the shadows on the wall [organizations].

    Because it is a recurring theme in your treatment, I would like to discuss “transformation.” Transformation, in my opinion, is not simply about change. Managers can and do effect change. Epimetheus exemplifies management as change agent—within the parameters ordained by the Olympian Establishment. Transformation, on the other hand, suggests to me a fundamental or complete change to the very character of someone or something. Prometheus, I hold, was a transformational leader. (I don’t deny that change can be profound—I’ll use the terms “transmogrify” (grotesque change) and “transform” (developmental change) to distinguish the phenomena.

    In an attempt to close the gap between the oppressed and the oppressor, Nelson Mandela stole the fire from the South African Establishment. Mandela’s experience exemplifies transformational leadership, whose gain for the people brought pain upon himself. I will encapsulate an excerpt from Organizational Behaviour in a Global Context, p.495

    Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress

    For most of the past 200 years, South Africa was ruled by a white minority government, although blacks have made up over 75 per cent of the populace. Whites

    • owned most of the property,
    • ran most of the businesses,
    • controlled most of the country’s natural resources,
    • did not have th right to vote, and
    • often worked for little or no wages.

    Nelson Mandela reacted to the oppression of white-minority rule by:

    • organizing a non-violent organization– the African National Congress (ANC),
    • provoking demonstrations and strikes.
    • promoting acts of sabotage to pressure the South African government to change—in response to the killing and injury of blacks in Sharpeville where previous riots had resulted in several whites being killed.

    “Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962, and he spent the next 27 years in prison. While in prison, Mandela continued to promote civil unrest and majority rule, for which he gained international recognition. He was offered but turned down a conditional release from prison in 1985, which was offered to him only because of the enormous pressure put on South African President F.W. de Klerk to release Mandela unconditionally. Finally, bowing to this pressure, the South African government was forced to “unban” the ANC and unconditionally released Nelson Mandela from prison. Eventually, Mandela persuaded de Klerk to sign a document outlining multiparty elections. Mandela won the 1994 national election and became the first truly democratically elected leader of South Africa.”

    To return to the myth of Prometheus, the Olympian Administration feared the loss of the fire. Perhaps they resented any act that would bring their dependent creation “closer to the gods.” They did not want to share their privileged position—their sense of elevation above and separation from their subordinates.

    In terms of our analysis, the Promethean fire can symbolize reason as an energy, a capacity to recognize “the unreality of many ideas that man holds and to penetrate to the reality veiled by the layers and layers of deception and ideologies” to quote Fromm. Thank you for emanating such energy today Lisa.

    Bye for now,


    The seawall beckons–“like a siren she calls to me”–to quote U2. In God’s Country.


    Albert J. Mills, Jean C. Helms Mills, Carolyn Forshaw, & John Bratton Organizational Behaviour in a Global Context (Broadview Press, 2007)

    Fromm, E. Beyond the Chains of Illusion. Continuum. New York, 1962)

  2. carman de voer says:

    Hi Lisa,

    I believe the following article by Melanie Douglas on toxic workplaces describes what unhealthy organizations look like:


    Bye for now,


  3. Carman, Thank you for your very thought-provoking post. I’ve moved a copy up to the main thread. Also the article is spot on — thanks for the contribution!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *