Leading People Can Be Messy


Most businesses are structured and controlled. There are processes to follow, strategies to set in motion, and bureaucracy to wade through. This structure can give us a false sense of control about the other stuff in our workplaces. Make no mistake. People cannot be controlled; in fact, they are downright unpredictable and messy, for a lot of very wonderful reasons. Leading people can be messy too.

When I work with my clients on new behaviors that will help them to impact and influence their workplaces, they can often get a false sense of the control that they are wielding over their employees. “Well, if I do this, then they will do that”, as in “If I become more inclusive and empowering, they will do what I want”.  It’s really not likely that you can predict precisely what others will do when you change how you manage and lead them..

Leadership is an art

Max DePree, in his classic leadership book,  had it right when he called leadership an art. People will not do what you want (exactly), they will do what they want (sort of) based on their strengths, gaps, skills, personality, the weather, the culture, their personal issues, their professional issues, what they think of you, what drives them, how they interpret the mission, what filters they turn on when you provide direction, how they feel, and what they had for lunch.

Whew. That is a lot to get in the way of having control over others. And it’s only the tip of the iceberg of the things that can effect a person’s ability to complete the work they way you want it completed.

Be willing to be surprised

So when you are making the changes in your behavior, you also have to be willing to be surprised and delighted. Let go of the belief that you have control over how others get things done. Rest assured that those who are inspired and motivated will do it their way – and their way may turn out to be amazing. Ask yourself instead:

  • What new strengths do I see emerging in my team?
  • Who is “flowering” under my new belief and willingness to let go of control?
  • Who requires more guidance? How will I coach them?
  • What is surprising me here? What is delighting me?

For all of their messiness, people sure can be amazing.


I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

5 comments on “Leading People Can Be Messy

  1. The reason that leadership is messy is that people are messy. They show up with emotions and passions and a history. They’re not anything like machines where you can motivate them to do what you want by pushing the right button. And that’s good. Because those messy people also show up with ideas and creativity.

    Those questions at the end of the post are excellent. They say to a boss who’s swallowed the “motivate your people” Kook Aid that it’s not going to be easy, but it can be fun and enriching and successful.

  2. Hi Wally, you said it better than I ever could. I personally love the messiness of people (with all of their ideas and creativity). Not sure that’s a universal opinion! Thanks.

  3. As we all know “All five fingers are not equal”. So in a company we will have employees come with different personalities. As a manager one has to prepare himself for all the possible scenarios. There will be people who wont do want you want and the way you want the job done. There are also a set of people who follow the manager. As they say a “A leader leads by example”. So one can get things done without saying a word and sometimes you need to talk your way through. Yes it is a messy job, but only a few know the art to clean it.

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