Leadership or Manipulation?

leading intentThere’s a thin line between leadership and manipulation.

Both can be defined as influencing others. Both deal with trying to get someone to do what you want them to do. Both use many of the same tools. Both try to leverage an individual’s beliefs and feelings to elicit a desired behavior. So how do you know if you’re leading or just being manipulative?

The difference lies in your heart. Ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Your motives determine whether you’re leading or manipulating. Are you looking out for yourself or are you serving a greater good? Are you seeking your own comfort or challenging someone to realize their potential? Where is your heart?

When your leadership is infested with selfishness, it’s easy to become a manipulator. Sometimes this is subtle; sometimes it’s obvious. Either way, when leadership morphs into manipulation, people and organizations suffer. The victims include:

1. Those who are manipulated. They end up hurt, disillusioned, and discouraged. Worst of all, their ability to trust is diminished—which handicaps their ability to lead and function moving forward.

2. Those who witness manipulation. Their ability to trust is also degraded.  They carry self-protective attitudes forward into future relationships—especially leader-follower relationships. When we see what others are capable of doing to us, it makes us wary. It makes us wince and pull ourselves in.

3. The organization as a whole. It suffers because collaboration, problem solving, decision-making, and synergy are all diminished in real-time. The result? Poor solutions. Over time the erosion of trust created by manipulative leadership is a cancer that will threaten the stability of the entire organization.

4. The manipulator himself. He will never reach his full potential, never find that place of maturity, confidence and peace. He will never know the fullness of satisfaction that comes from using your gifts to serve others. Some may say he deserves this ongoing turmoil, but remember, he may be you! We are all naturally self-centered and without conscious effort, our leadership will naturally slide to serve our own interests.

How have you seen leaders manipulate others? What were the effects? How do you guard against becoming manipulative?

30 thoughts on “Leadership or Manipulation?”

  1. Geoff,

    I’m ticked at you! Early this morning I was thinking about this very topic.

    Leaders can leverage leadership techniques to manipulate people. I think we rise above manipulation when our methods align with our values, when we are authentic.

    I think manipulation is a bigger problem than many would like to admit.

    Thanks for your work.



    1. I read your mind!

      Actually, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. You and I (and all our peers) are sharing these great techniques to help people lead well, but if mishandled, these same techniques could cause a lot of damage.

      You’re right that we all have to guard again this.

      As always, thanks for stopping by and speaking up!

  2. It seems to me that manipulation goes beyond attempting to influence another person to actually trying to control him/her. Given the human ability to deceive ourselves and to live in denial, we all need at least one other person who has permission to examine our motives and actions. Left to our own devices we may never realize we stepped over that thin line from leadership to manipulation. Thank you for this timely reminder.

    1. Great point about accountability, Mark. It’s so key. And we as leaders have to be open to the possibility that we’re capable of blindly manipulating others. It can be a tough pill to swallow for many of us, but unless we admit the possibility, we can never hope to defend against it.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Great post, Geoff. Quality stuff. I agree with you that it’s all about the heart. Motivation is the litmus test. The hard part is developing checks and balances that help us HONESTLY evaluate our motivations.

  4. Getting someone to do something that results in a win-win is Leadership. Manipulation results in a win-lose. Too many so called leaders settle for the latter.

  5. I think the manipulator is still stuck in childhood. If you can’t see
    beyond the perspective of a child and you are not getting you needs met,
    you will default to the position of a needy child: “I, ME and MINE!!”

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