Control Freaks Anonymous

There always seems to be one at every organization. Typically, it’s a manager, often the CEO. At a nonprofit, it frequently is a Board Member. Heck, once I had a secretary who fit the profile perfectly.

I am, perhaps not so obviously, talking about the person who has to control everything that goes anywhere near them. These are the people who are so busy working, they frequently don’t get anything done. And they certainly don’t allow anyone around them to accomplish their work.

If this is you, stop. Take a deep breath. Look around. There are competent people there who could be doing a credible job if you would just let them.

But if this is you, you probably don’t recognize yourself. If, however, you are someone who works with or for this person, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And believe me, I feel your pain.

Working for or trying to work with someone who has an issue with trust or control is more than difficult. Frustrating is one word that comes to mind. But in a world where funding is increasingly more difficult to get and where opportunities must be grasped when and where you can find them, the micromanager is more than simply frustrating. He or she becomes a serious liability.

When that person is also a CEO of talent, passion, charisma, it is that much more depressing. The very person who should be leading the organization onto what my colleague Jeff Wilcox calls “higher ground,” too often is a lead anchor. Since nothing can happen without that person’s direct input, and since that person is just too too busy for words, the result is that indeed, nothing happens.

Or rather, something, but that something isn’t positive. Nor is it benign.

I have watched as even a basic direct mail appeal cannot go out on time because the CEO has to put his or her imprint on it. So the October drop date morphs into November and when the appeal finally goes out it is in the middle of the holiday season. What might have brought a respectable 4 or 5% response, gets under 1%. And the control freak says, “See. If I hadn’t taken over, we would have gotten no response at all.”

This behavior is particularly difficult for small organizations where fundraising doesn’t get enough attention to begin with. If plans are created, they are not implemented because actions get stopped at the leader’s door. They are, they will tell you, too busy to give the plan their attention, so it will just have to wait until they have time.

I understand these people. Shoot, I am one. But when I work with someone who shows me that he or she is up to the job—cares about the outcomes, accepts responsibility for mistakes, and mostly keeps me constantly in the loop, I will, reluctantly, give up the reins and let them fly.

My mother used to tell me not to get mad but rather to get even. If you work for a control freak, getting mad just convinces them that they are right in not allowing you any freedom. Your “unjustified” anger proves that. So get even, by mastering your job and by always, always letting your controlling boss know what you are up to. Eventually, most will grant you an “area of expertise” where you will be the go-to person—even for them.

But even if that doesn’t happen, if the control freak just keeps on holding fast to everything and keeps your work from getting done, you can just take your expertise elsewhere. Hopefully somewhere where you will be able to shine.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at Gets Grants!, an online grantwriting class is is available at
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