Leadership Decision Test: Serving or Controlling?

Businessman With Chains on WristsYou know that feeling: you just don’t feel right about a decision. Here’s a simple leadership test to validate the decision: does it seek to serve or control your stakeholders?

Naturally, you’d never seek to control control your customer, investor or employees, you say. But wait, there are nuances to these differences that may surprise you.


A decision may seek to control your stakeholders if it brings about a result that makes you or your team look good, with little or no benefit to stakeholders. Another control indicator is when you make decisions that drive short-term results at long-term costs. A decision may also be controlling when all costs are not transparent to stakeholders.


To determine if your decision serves your stakeholders, just give it the Robert K. Greenleaf test:

Do those being served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will she or he benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived? – Robert K. Greenleaf

So the next time you have an important decision, ask yourself, does the solution seek to control or serve the stakeholders? The answer will help you decide but it also may surprise you.

About the Author:

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder ModernServantLeader.com - the leading blog on servant leadership and top 35 site for any leadership topic, globally. Ben also speaks and consults on IT and management topics for a large variety of clients. Find out more about him at https://ModernServantLeader.com.


  1. David McCuistion March 15, 2013 at 8:27 am - Reply

    My focus in the decision making process is to show that the decision is in their own best interest. This requires a mentoring approach with servant leadership instruction and communication. I take a collaborative approach, not because I’m afraid of making a decision, but to seek input, create buy-in and confidence in the decision, get the pros and cons of the ideal I am fostering. After all, leadership is not about control, it is about meeting the needs of everyone in the organization as we all work toward the vision as guided by the mission of the company.

    • Ben Lichtenwalner March 15, 2013 at 10:44 am - Reply

      A great mashup of the Decision Maker and serving vs. controlling analysis. Thanks again Dave!

  2. Bill Benoist March 15, 2013 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Definitely a thought-provoking post.

    One thing that comes to mind for me were yearly team building events our information services department would have. Our group was geographically dispersed and to come together in a central location for 1.5 days was costly. We would meet during the day, develop technology strategies for the firm and then that evening have a department party with food, drinks, and general good time. From the outside, one could possibly see this as control because it was about the team and not the stakeholders, however, to see the benefits come out of the team building event which touched stakeholders over the course of the year was definitely serving.

    • Ben Lichtenwalner March 15, 2013 at 10:41 am - Reply

      That is an excellent example, Bill. Team building off-site meetings are an investment In the team that, all-too-often are perceived wrong. Thank you for sharing, Bill.

  3. Jane Street March 18, 2013 at 6:00 am - Reply

    A very interesting post. A simple tool to aid this decision making is to draft a needs/interventions grid – list all the options on one axis, and all the groups affected on the other, then add a tick or cross depending on whetehr the option meets or doesn’t meet the needs of that group. If it doesnt meet the needs of the key stakeholders, then it is probably a controlloing decision.

    • Ben Lichtenwalner March 18, 2013 at 10:09 am - Reply

      An excellent addition, Jane. If you have an example, please do share it. I’ll have to try this one in the future. Thank you for sharing.

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