Control vs. Mastery

Do you want to become a Master of your Life?

One key lesson is to let go of control.

Learn more here.

“I feel the Force.”

“But you cannot control it.”

Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi

Control, noun

  1. the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.

“the whole operation is under the control of a production manager”

(Oxford Languages)

Control means having grip on something, and usually, what we try to control is the outcome. For example, my sister loves baking and cooking, and it is necessary to control the temperature of the oven, and how much of each ingredient we put into the recipe to make the cake. However, once the cake is in the oven, we have no more control over it. We can modify the temperature, or leave it longer to bake, but other than that, the process needs to happen on it’s own. To have a successful result (a perfectly baked cake), the chef needs to let go of control. There is no way around it. This is where Mastery lies.

Mastery, noun

  1. comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular subject or activity.

“she played with some mastery”

 2.     control or superiority over someone or something.

“man’s mastery over nature”

(Oxford Languages)

Mastery means being able to focus, use the right skills and attention for a specific outcome, and once all that is needed has been done, letting go.

“Let go and let God”.

Notice I said “has been done”, which looks like no one has been doing anything particular. That is because Mastery is closely related to the state of Flow. You get into this state of flow when you are at the sweet spot between the level of challenge of the task, and your level of skill (my article on Flow).

In organizations, it is well known that too much control leads to a decrease in trust and productivity, and can lead to declines of well-being of employees. Thankfully, new forms of organizations such as Teal Organizations (Frédéric Laloux) or Liberated Companies (Isaac Getz) are showing new ways of organizing work which dramatically improve trust, productivity and fulfillment, by decreasing control within organizations. These organizations use new forms of designing management, team work, and processes, which you can find in Frédéric Laloux’ excellent book Reinventing Organizations.

Relating to control, I like Rich Litvin’s saying:

“I am in charge, not in control.”

Sometimes, though, control is necessary. For instance, in business, you do need to check your numbers, your cash-flow, your profits, to make sure that your business is going in the right direction. That is the second sense of the verb:

to control, verb

1.     determine the behaviour or supervise the running of.

“he was appointed to control the company’s marketing strategy”

2. take into account (an extraneous factor that might affect the results of an experiment).

“no attempt was made to control for variations”

 (Oxford Languages)

So, how does one know when to let go?

First, when all has been done which could be done. In other words: do your best, and let go.

Second, when the results produced are not meeting the initial goals, and you find no way to turn the situation around. For instance, when you have been working on a project, and injecting attention, care, focus and resources into it, and the project is still not yielding the expected results, it might be time not only to let go, but to pull out of the project completely. A good article from explains there are 5 good reasons to stop a project:

  1. When it no longer meets the project needs, such as the original purpose of the project has changed and can’t be met.
  2. The costs are out of control, and there is no way to recoup the return on investment.
  3. The cost to complete exceeds the budget, and it is impossible to cover the difference in costs.
  4. The circumstances affect the possibility of completion, such as those listed above.
  5. There are ethical and/or legal issues.

Third, when the project you are working on is not in your hands anymore. Once you have delegated it to a team member, you can and need to let go. Remember to create team members that are Superheroes. Surround yourself with people who are more competent and effective than you. Create your team of superheroes, so that when you delegate to them, you know that they will do the job better than you would.

I have experienced this myself, when 8 years ago I created the Productive Behaviors workshop for students at ESSEC Business School to empower them with the soft skills they need in their daily life, at school and in their jobs. I created, coordinated and ran the workshop for 2 years, leading the team of up to 12 facilitators. Then, as I needed more time and space to move on with other projects, I was blessed to count on two great leaders, trainers and facilitators: Mathieu Bouchaert and Laura De Boisset.

Mathieu has a level of academic rigor and analytical thinking that surpasses mine, and Laura is a phenomenal coordinator who took on the project in liaison with the Direction of Studies at ESSEC. They have done such a great job that six years later, they still invite me to be a lecturer in the workshops, but they dramatically improved the contents, grew the team to 20 enthusiastic and highly competent facilitators and transformed the workshop to be a digital success in these challenging COVID times (with great digital interactive tools that had students give raving reviews of the workshop). Today, the Productive Behaviours movement has benefited thousands of students across more than 11 Business Schools, greatly thanks to their leadership. That is an application of what my former mentor Michel Vallier, taught me about the role of a manager (and I would say of the Leader as well):

To become useless !

And that is one of my favorite things to do…

Taking action now !

In which areas of your life are your trying to control things too much?

What is one tiny step you could take to let go?

Which areas of your life would you like to Master?

What is the tiniest step you could take towards Mastery?

What is one area of your life or your business that you would need to delegate?

Who could do the job better than you would? (if you don’t know or think you’re the only one, think better.)

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