Dr. Scott Benwell

In Collaboration and Community

Care or Control – A Leader’s Decision

December 6, 2010 by sbenwell · 6 Comments · Uncategorized

Throughout my career I have observed, experienced, and studied the effects of care and control systems of belief in educational leadership.  While it needs to be understood that we rarely find a purist in either area and different situations call for different approaches, we can generate greater awareness of our habits and inclinations through the consideration of extremes.  The dichotomy of care and control is particularly relevant today as gone are the days of absolute acceptance of power and authority.  Across sectors, younger generations of employees are expecting that they will have creative input into what an organization is and how it responds to their needs and desires.  We need to adopt new habits and challenge our assumptions about effective leadership as a consequence. 

At the outset, I will declare my preference for care over control.  This is predictable as an educator and I would imagine that most would locate themselves here because it makes sense – care for students, staff, parents, and the district as a whole is our business, but it may not be that simple.  It is evident that our systems of belief and world views move us toward unintended habits of control and that we need to be conscious and self aware.  To be conscious we need models of understanding against which to evaluate our self-observations.  When we do this, we grow as leaders.  While a particular title (eg. principal, department head, assistant superintendent etc.) may lend itself to elements of control, it is a higher calling that moves us toward the mindset of care.  I believe that the skills of care are essential to the change effort we are about to see in education and that care is, in fact, the harder but more effective path to leading change.  Let me explain:

Mental models help us move from unconscious reactions toward conscious actions where the impact of our decisions are carefully considered.  Within the model of care and control, it is useful to self-reflect and locate ourselves along the continuum in order to makes sense of peoples’ reactions to our leadership attempts.  I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Tom Gougeon at the University of Calgary from 2002-2005 while I was researching and writing my dissertation and many of the following thoughts were formed as a result of my learning and collaboration with him.

The habits of care are measured by looking at the extent to which we show empathy, listen, encourage, and collaborate.  When we are acting within a mindset of care, we allow others to feel relaxed, in alignment, and free to innovate and create.  We are seen by others as helpful and guiding and we are concerned with relating to others in deep and authentic ways.  Kouzes and Posner gave us Encouraging the HeartSergiovanni wrote about The Lifeworld of Leadership, and Lipman encourages Thinking in Education just to name a few of the major thinkers around care. 

Alternatively, the habit of persistent control leads to stifling the creative and growth orientations we so desperately need in our organizations.  When operating in control, we feel the need to fix, rescue, participate in everything, and protect our image.  When in control, we feel anxious, fearful, and tired, and we are viewed by others as manipulative and controlling.  When trying to control we are concerned with being right, having immediate solutions, and requiring extensive details.

On this topic, Margaret Wheatley in Turning to One Another writes about the necessity of relationship building and care.  She argued that, “Even though worker capacity and motivation are destroyed when leaders choose power over productivity, it appears that bosses would rather be in control than have the organization work well.”  Wheatley reminds us that it is our peoples’ creativity and dedication that makes our organizations successful.  As leaders, it is important to find ways to celebrate and care for ingenuity and the spirit of growth we find all over if we have the wisdom to look.  We always have opportunities to recognize and care for others in this business and the frequency with which we take up the challenge will be a mark of our success.

6 Comments so far ↓

  • Chris Wejr

    During my master’s program, I was introduced to Nel Noddings. Her focus on the ‘ethic of care’ is one that has guided me as a leader and as a teacher. It is easy to get caught up in the control aspect of our jobs, especially with kids. With education, we always have to ask ourselves: is this about compliance or is this about care? Leading with an ethic of care is crucial to the development of a collaborative, trusting environment. Great post Scott!

  • sbenwell

    Chris, I love the question you pose about compliance or care. Also, great reference to Noddings – that fits perfectly.

  • David Wees

    Wow, great analysis.

    I’ve worked in both types of organizers, under both types of leaders. I have to say, I much prefer working with a leader who cares about me, and is will to cede some control so that I can develop as a professional.

    How can you expect to develop teacher leaders if you don’t give them opportunities to learn how to lead?

    I hope you keep posting, both posts you have written have been interesting reads.

  • sbenwell

    David, thanks for the comment. I referenced Kouzes and Posner in the post. One of my favourites in their book Encouraging the Heart is, “It’s only human nature that if we feel we’re being watched by someone looking for our faults, we act very differently than we do in a supportive environment.” Awesome!

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  • Martin Goldberg

    “Care vs control” approaches in business parallel those in education. As education (practice and structure) in western cultures continues to promote independent thinking, collaboration and cooperation, and social responsibility, practices in other social structures (family, government, business) will move further toward the care end of the continuum. Economic security is a prerequisite for momentum towards care.

    Having experienced the impact of public education across three generations (my father’s, my own, and my daughters’), my person case study of one demonstrates the value and impact of embracing care-based models.

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