NPO Leadership: CEOs with Control Issues

The NPO CEO with control issues — Is the organization doomed for failure?  Yes, it is.

I’ve written about leadership, and I’ve written about nonprofits, but I’ve yet to write specifically about nonprofit leadership.  It’s time.

And, for the record — the concepts I’ll be discussing apply equally to the for-profit leader as they do to NPO leadership.  It’s just that, somehow, when a nonprofit leader exhibits unsavory and unfavorable characteristics (as we shall discuss), it is that much more unacceptable.  Nonprofits, in general, are founded on heart and soul.  So how can it be that an NPO leader can seem to lack that very thing?

Earlier today, I read a phenomenal blog post written by authors Chantal Laurie Below and Kimberly Dasher Tripp, on the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

You might also enjoy reading the entire article, “Freeing the Social Entrepreneur“. (It’s even lengthier than my blog articles, but it’s worthwhile!)

In their article, Ms. Below and Ms. Tripp begin by telling the story of a successful female investment banker, Suzanne Morris, who made a drastic career adjustment when she went to work for a small nonprofit as its COO.  The mission of the nonprofit resonated with her, and its CEO garnered her deep respect and admiration.

But there was not a happy ending for Suzanne with the nonprofit.  The CEO, as it turned out, made it impossible.  She had control issues.

A CEO is a Leader

Before you say, “Duh!” consider this: While it might sound far too obvious to point out that a CEO is a leader, it seems that there is a population of CEO’s who have yet to discover this fact, or to understand what it actually means.  This article is directed to them, as well as to those of you who find yourselves the subordinate of one of these characters.

Suzanne Morris found herself in that position.  As much as she respected and admired her new boss, she couldn’t penetrate the CEO’s perpetual force field of control, possession, and insecurity.

Red flags waved early for Suzanne.  She discovered that in the preceding 18 month period, the CEO went through 3 COO’s before Suzanne took the position.  As the 4th COO, Suzanne was determined to make it work.

Morris was told that she would be responsible for human resources (HR), legal, technology, and board management, as well as responsible for managing everyone except the controller, who reported to the CEO (and happened to be the CEO’s sister). Morris felt that if she’d survived the rough-and-tumble world of investment banking, she could certainly tackle this challenge.

Some mountains just can’t be moved, it seems, and Suzanne faced one of those mountains.

Like Suzanne, I have also attempted to move mountains that can’t be moved.  In fact, her experience so closely mirrored an experience of my own, I had to make sure that what I was reading wasn’t a forgotten publication of mine!

As written by Below and Tripp, Suzanne Morris faced an impossible challenge and found it necessary to resign:

Over the next nine months . . . Morris learned that the dynamic CEO whom she had admired resisted processes and systems, asserted tight control over all details, avoided delegation, felt threatened by opposing views, and contributed to a negative staff culture. It seemed that the CEO was not prepared for a strong management team or aware of the opportunity that having a strong team would present. . . . By refusing to relinquish control, the CEO missed an opportunity to fully engage Morris and capitalize on her strengths.

If you are a regular reader of my work, you might remember “Fred” and “Barney”.  Suzanne’s CEO so resembles Fred and Barney, that I shall call her Wilma.

Wilma, it seems, is unaware that a CEO is a leader.  Instead, she operates in a vacuum.  Her tunnel vision precludes her from seeing opportunities.  What would work best for her is a team of drones, mechanical bots that heed her every whim but that cannot otherwise think for themselves.

We’ve all seen these types of executive officers.  They do not trust in anyone’s ability outside of their own.  Instead of leading, they dictate.  Instead of providing a vision from which a team can develop and achieve, they cage the very folks who are intended to paint the mural.  They fail in their leadership role.

Building Trust

Some CEOs argue that it is necessary for them to hold tightly to the reigns until the COO (or CFO, CLO, etc.) proves his value.  This begs the question, “If you mistrust the value of the new hire, why did you hire him in the first place?”

Inarguably, it takes time for trust to be established in a professional relationship such as exists between a CEO and her subordinate chief executive officers, vice presidents, and other C-suite level professionals.  It takes time for a new hire to prove that she can do the job she was hired to do.  But if her hands are tied — if the CEO does not trust her enough to let her dance the dance for which she auditioned and was hired — there’s no reason to start the music.

When the CEO is like Wilma — a controller — trust is nearly impossible.

Identifying the Controlling CEO

Suzanne took a leap of faith when she left her successful investment banking job to pursue a career in nonprofits.  As it turned out, she lost nearly a year of career time to learn a hard lesson:  You can’t play on a team with a captain who won’t pass the ball.

How can others of us avoid making this mistake?  What signs are there that the CEO for whom you may decide to work is going to turn out to be like Wilma?

Here are a few red flags:


Understanding that the person who is controlling is also most often insecure, consideration should be given to a primary element of the narcissistic personality: grandiosity.

When one feels insecure, and when that same person also tends toward narcissism (frequently observed in over-achievers and under-achievers, but less likely in those who are median achievers), we often see characteristics of grandiosity.

Psychologists point to the idea of a “grander self” being created by the insecure person in order to please or deceive others. But eventually, these folks believe their own lies. There is also a theory that the narcissist sincerely believes — to his core — that he is a uniquely special person and therefore deserving of adoration and praise.

In the business world, this kind of person presents himself as a hero. He will attempt to impress you with stories of how he defeated this or that business foe, stood against the odds and overcame obstacles in a super-hero manner.

He will emphasize his accomplishments and abilities, his credentials, and his acquaintances with well-known people.  And though you, too, will make statements regarding your achievements and so-forth in the interview setting, notice that it is appropriate for you to do so in that context; it is inappropriate and out-of-context for him, however.  You’ll notice that the hiring interview is out of balance and more focused on him and his value than on you and your value to the organization.


The controller feels compelled to dominate.  She will inject her opinion regardless of the appropriateness of doing so.  She will make demands that encroach on your autonomy.  She will correct or contradict you in front of others, asserting her own position as one that is somehow more credible.

In business, she will micro-manage. She will tell you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, she’ll watch you do it, and then demand that you “run it by her for approval” once it’s done.  It won’t matter that she’s relatively inexperienced, especially in comparison to you and your 20 year history as a Director of Operations for a Fortune 500, or that you have a personal recommendation from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs; she’s the boss and it’s her way or the highway.

In an interview, you might notice that she repeatedly exhibits her domination tendency with comments like, “After I approve it ….”, “If I think you have a good idea, then ….”, and “You’ll want to run it by me before you ….”  Note that these statement alone do not identify a controlling personality, that it is in their cumulative use — when the CEO repeatedly makes these statements — that you might realize you’re dealing with someone who will make your life impossible.

The Devil in the Details

The controller thrives on details.  And while details are seldom unimportant, it is generally not the CEO’s job to waste time with them.  A CEO, for example, who spends time worrying about the details of the email sent out by employees, might very likely be a controller.

In an interview, a controlling CEO may ask for details about a project you completed — and that’s fine.  But if he pushes you for more details than is necessary to demonstrate your proficiency and ability, especially if the details he seeks are in no way indicative of your knowledge, skills, an abilities for the position you are seeking, consider it a red flag.

General Inappropriateness

When you meet in person with a controlling CEO, it typically will not take long for you to feel a sense of being ill-at-ease.  You may not be able to pin-point the cause of this feeling, but don’t ignore it.

Instead, tune in to the subtleties of the CEO’s behavior. Note whether he seems to exhibit less-than-appropriate or blatantly inappropriate behavior.  For example, “man to man,” he might start making snide remarks about his wife.  Or, the manner in which he speaks to a support staff member may strike you as insensitive, rude, tyrannical, or all of the above.


The controller is often rude.  This stems from a lack of empathy, compassion, and simple kindness.  The rude CEO who is also controlling will repeatedly interrupt you (What you have to say isn’t nearly as important as what he wants to say.)  He will seldom make eye contact when engaged in a conversation, not because he’s multi-tasking but because he hasn’t truly engaged with you in the first place.  He’s half-listening, at best.  You’re just not important enough.

Identity Issues

The controlling CEO has tunnel vision.  As I mentioned earlier, “It’s her way or the highway.”  This is not always because the person is a tyrant; it is often because the individual lacks the ability to appreciate the uniqueness of others.  Life exists as she sees it — and there is nothing more.  As a result, she will define you rather than perceive the persona you project.

In business, she seems to totally disregard your skills, abilities, and experience.  In spite of the fact that she “knows” you ran the Giving Programs for another nonprofit and brought in an impressive amount for a previously under-funded program, you overhear her tell a Board Member that you will require training before she allows you to manage a funding project.

You are who she wants you to be, not who you really are.  She does the defining; not you.

The Bottom Line

Here’s the bottom line:  A controlling CEO will ultimately fail.  If it’s a nonprofit s/he is running, it, too, will ultimately fail. You, the job seeker, need to decide whether it is worth the trouble that will inevitably plague you as you try to work for and with this person.  In all but the rarest cases, I can’t imagine that it would be.

And you if YOU are the controlling CEO, you likely reached your position as the result of starting your own business and proclaiming yourself to be the leader. In the unlikely event that you climbed the ranks traditionally, it is very likely that a good deal of bullying accompanied you on that climb.

If you recognize your behavior as that of a controller, or if you hear echoes of complaints you’ve received along that line, you are urged by the rest of us to take a close look at yourself.  Then, please seek help.  You’ll be the better for it.  And so will the rest of us!

~Lynda C. Watts

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4 Responses to NPO Leadership: CEOs with Control Issues

  1. Pingback: Is No Job Better than the Wrong Job? | Grown-up Living: Careers & More

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. THIS is what I have been looking for. 😉

  3. Reblogged this on Public 990 Data and commented:
    It’s as if she’s right there with us in the office day in and day out. Wow.

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