Dec 20, 2022 6 min read

Creative Leaders vs Controlling Leaders

In his classic The Adult Learner, Malcolm Knowles makes the distinction between creative leaders and controlling ones. By understanding teams and organizations as systems, and their energy as a parameter, one approach tries to control energy while the other works on releasing energy in the system.

Leadership as controlling vs releasing a system's energy

Knowles undertook a personal intellectual adventure that paid high dividends in terms of understanding the role of leadership and in selecting more effective leadership strategies. The adventure consisted of seeing what would happen if one conceptualized a social system (family, group, organization, agency, corporation...) as a system of human energy.

All at once a set of questions very different from those typically asked by leaders come to mind:

• What is the sum total of the human energy available in the system?
• What proportion of this energy is now being used?
• Where is the unused energy located? Why is it not being tapped?
• What kinds of energy (physical, intellectual, psychic, moral, artistic, technical, social) are represented?
• What might be done to release this energy for accomplishing greater goals for the system and the individuals in it?

By virtue of simply asking these kinds of questions, you begin to think differently about the role of leadership. Clouded by the era of Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management,” the role of leadership consisted primarily of controlling followers or subordinates. Effective leaders, from this view, were those who were able to get people to follow their orders.

The consequence of this doctrine is, of course, that the output of the system was limited to the vision and ability of the leader. Realizing this provokes a rethinking of the leadership function.
The alternative function of leadership is releasing the energy of the people in the system and managing the processes for giving that energy direction toward mutually beneficial goals. Perhaps a better way of saying this is that creative leadership releases the creative energy of the people being led.
Tests of this view of leadership have been done in two ways. First, by observing leaders of various sorts (teachers, business executives, educational administrators, and organizational and political leaders) through this frame of reference to identify characteristics that releasing leaders possess that controlling leaders don’t have. Second, by re-examining the research literature on human behavior, organizational dynamics, and leadership to find out what support it contains for this way of viewing the concept of leadership.

The result of this bifocal inquiry is in the form of the following propositions...

Behavioral characteristics of creative leaders

They default to positive, not negative

Creative leaders make a different set of assumptions (essentially positive) about human nature from the assumptions (essentially negative) made by controlling leaders. It has been my observation that creative leaders have faith in people, offer them challenging opportunities, and delegate responsibility to them.

Two of the clearest presentations of these contrasting assumptions in the literature Douglas McGregor in the case of assumptions by managers and by Carl Rogers in the case of assumptions by educators.

The validity of the positive set of assumptions is supported by research which indicates that when people perceive the locus of control to reside within themselves, they are more creative and productive. The more they feel their unique potential is being used, the greater their achievement.

They enable participation

Creative leaders accept as a law of human nature that people feel a commitment to a decision in proportion to the extent that they feel they have participated in making it. Creative leaders, therefore, involve their clients, workers, or students in every step of the planning process, assessing needs, formulating goals, designing lines of action, carrying out activities, and evaluating results (except, perhaps, in emergencies). The validity of this proposition is supported by locus of control studies and by research on organizational change, decision making , and organizational dynamics.

They understand the Pygmalion effect

Creative leaders believe in and use the power of self-fulfilling prophecy. They understand that people tend to rise to the expectations of others. The creative coach conveys to his team that he knows they are capable of winning; the good supervisor’s employees know that she has faith that they will do superior work; the good teacher’s students are convinced that they are the best students in school.

The classic study demonstrating this principle, Rosenthal and Jacobson’s Pygmalion in the Classroom (1968), showed that the students of teachers who were told that they were superior students were superior students; whereas the students of teachers who were told that they were inferior students were inferior students. And, of course, there was no difference in the natural ability of the two groups of students. The relationship between positive self-concept and superior performance has been demonstrated in studies of students and in general life achievement .

They value individuality

They sense that people perform at a higher level when they are operating on the basis of their unique strengths, talents, interests, and goals than when they are trying to conform to some imposed stereotype. They are comfortable with a pluralistic culture and tend to be bored with one that is monolithic.

As managers, they encourage a team arrangement in which each member works at what he or she does best and enjoys most; as teachers they strive to tailor the learning strategies to fit the individual learning styles, paces, starting points, needs, and interests of all the students. This proposition is widely supported in the research literature .

They enable self-actualization, not conformity

There is another dimension to this proposition—more of a philosophical note than a behavioral observation. It is that creative leaders probably have a different sense of the purpose of life from that of the controlling leaders.

They see the purpose of all life activities— work, learning, recreation, civic participation, worship—as a way to enable each individual to achieve his or her full and unique potential. They seek to help each person become what Maslow calls a self-actualizing person, whereas the controlling leader’s mission is to produce conforming persons.

They leverage creativity

Creative leaders stimulate and reward creativity. They understand that in a world of accelerating change, creativity is a basic requirement for the survival of individuals, organizations, and societies. They exemplify creativity in their own behavior and provide an environment that encourages and rewards innovation in others. They make it legitimate for people to experiment and to treat failures as opportunities to learn rather than as acts to be punished .

They understand the dynamics of change

Creative leaders are committed to a process of continuous change and are skillful in managing change. They understand the difference between static and innovative organizations and aspire to make their organizations the latter. They are well grounded in the theory of change and skillful in selecting the most effective strategies for bringing about change .

They leverage intrinsic, not extrinsic motivators

Creative leaders emphasize internal motivators over external motivators. They understand the distinction revealed in Herzberg et al.’s research between satisfiers (motivators), such as achievement, recognition, fulfilling work, responsibility, advancement, and growth; and dissatisfiers (hygienic factors), such as organizational policy and administration, supervision, working conditions, interpersonal relations, salary, status, job security, and personal life.

They take steps to minimize the dissatisfiers but concentrate their energy on optimizing the satisfiers. This position is strongly supported by subsequent research .

They enable autonomy and self-mastery

Creative leaders encourage people to be self-directing. They sense intuitively what researchers have been telling us for some time—that a universal characteristic of the maturation process is movement from a state of dependency toward states of increasing self-directedness.

They realize that because of previous conditioning as dependent learners in their school experience, adults need initial help in learning to be self-directing and will look to leaders for this kind of help. And, to provide this kind of help, they have developed their skills as facilitators and consultants to a high level.

Knowles was ahead of his time with many of his ideas. They have aged well over the years and proven robust across multiple studies and research areas. It should not be mistaken for a "be good" morality based approach, but rather what enables peak performance and results, that organizations need and demand.

What model do your actions reflect?

Consider the default model of leadership and the underlying assumptions that you and your organization operate under. If not explicitly stated, it's implicit in your actions and stance.

Often, managers default to controlling energy because the opposite of releasing energy initially takes more effort and skill, and can be counterintuitive. But once it gets rolling it takes less energy to sustain the momentum.

It's a fundamentally different approach to managing and leading. The shift is subtle and neither are the results immediate. But it's well worth the effort in the long run.

One way to release energy in your team is to operate more in terms of enabling context rather than enforcing control or dictating content. Understanding leadership in the context of a creative vs controlling framework of energy is a good way to discern between the approaches of context vs that of control.

In modern times, Netflix is a great example of building teams that foster creativity using context, as opposed to suppressing it by using control.


  1. The Adult Learner by Malcolm Knowles, Elwood Holton and Richard Swanson.
Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at
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