Relinquishing Control to Gain Control

Lynda Rutledge currently serves as the Program Executive Officer for Air Force Mobility and Training Aircraft Programs but has had a long and successful career acquiring complex systems and designing business strategies for the Department of Defense.

The late Alexander Laufer, author of seven books on project management, sat down with Rutledge to learn about her leadership style. This article, drawn from Laufer’s interviews with Rutledge, describes the most important lesson of her career—a lesson she learned on the road to trying to become a better parent.

Street Smarts

It happened when her daughter was selected to take an IQ test at her school to assess whether she should move into a gifted program. The person who administered the test said Rutledge’s daughter had “a very strange delta.” She scored high on the “book smarts” portion of the assessment, but when it came to problems designed to assess her “street smarts,” she consistently deferred to an adult.

As Rutledge explains: “They’d ask something like: if you’re walking down the street and someone came up and asked you to do X or Y, what would you do?” Every time, her daughter responded with a variation of “I’d go get an adult and ask them” or “I would ask my mom and she would tell me.”

“It really made me think about myself,” Rutledge says. She realized that in her dealings with her daughter, she had tended to take charge. “I like being in control and making decisions,” Rutledge says, but she knew she needed to start making her daughter solve her own problems.

So she changed her approach.

You’ll Figure It Out

As she pulled up to school to drop her daughter off for her third day of kindergarten, her daughter said, “Mom, I’m not sure how to get to my classroom from here. Will you walk me in?”

Rutledge’s response: “No, you’ll figure it out.” And of course, she did.

It wasn’t much later that Rutledge got her first assignment as a program manager for the Air Force’s Small Diameter Bomb Program, which her daughter jokingly referred to as Rutledge’s “other baby.”

At the first project meeting, the team members, all junior personnel, were eager for guidance about how to proceed. “That was a defining moment,” Rutledge says. “I’ll never forget it. I remember the conference room I was sitting in. I remember the faces looking at me. I remember every one of them. They asked question like: ‘What do you want us to do? How do you want us to write this? How do you want us to do it?’

 “The part of me that likes to retain control couldn’t help thinking ‘This would be easier if I could do it all myself,’” Rutledge says. But her job was to manage her team in a way that allowed them to do the job—and, in the process, mature into capable project managers in their own right. As they peppered her with questions, she had an epiphany: she needed to use the same approach that she used with her daughter. Instead of answering each question in detail, providing precise instructions, she simply gave them a goal, set some boundaries, and let them go.

The Nature of Control

By relinquishing some control, Rutledge “missed knowing everything there was to know about the project.” But she came to recognize that she exerted a different sort of control. Now, she was able to guide the project by supplying a “bigger vision,” helping her team when they ran into problems or needed to bounce ideas around.

With this new approach, her role in team meetings went something like this: “Here’s why I’m thinking what I’m thinking, but how do you think we should do this?” After a conversation, she’d send her team members on their way with a reminder that she was always available to talk things over: “If you have any doubts or if you don’t know which way to go, come back and see me.”

By giving up a little control, Rutledge empowered her team members to solve problems on their own. It turned out her new approach was the ideal way to grow a workforce, “which in the end is what I really love to do the most now,” Rutledge says.

The Imperatives

Rutledge is quick to admit, however, that this form of management hinges on two key requirements: trust and communication. Just as she had faith in her daughter’s ability to find her classroom, she had total trust in her team’s ability to manage their tasks. That made it easy to ignore the urge to micromanage them.

She also had faith that the lines of communication were open. She created an environment in which her team felt empowered to do their work and supported when they ran into problems. “I knew the feedback loop would keep me informed,” she says. She still uses this philosophy to lead organizations almost 20 years later.

As for Rutledge’s daughter these days? “She’s extremely independent. I haven’t had to worry about her,” Rutledge says. “She’s got a great head on her shoulders.  She grew up to be a lawyer.”

And those junior-level team members?

Almost all of them grew as leaders and are now in key leadership positions in the Air Force leading and managing large teams of their own.

Jeffrey S. Russell

Jeffrey S. Russell

Jeffrey S. Russell is Vice Provost for Lifelong Learning, Dean of Continuing Studies, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Executive Director of the Consortium for Project Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He collaborated with the late Alexander Laufer on Becoming a Project Leader (Palgrave 2018), co-written with Terry Little and Bruce Maas.

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