If it’s not about being in control, then what? – Perspectives on human, organisational and societal flourishing

by Esther Ridsdale

For years I’ve been aware that controlling management does not bring out the best in people and that being controlling is not healthy on a personal level. But a side of me continually wrestles with this and I’ve struggled personally with accepting the idea of not having control of things that affect my wellbeing. What is a healthy stance on this? How can I frame things in a way that acknowledges my needs and even my insecurities, yet is healthy and life enhancing; enabling both me and others the maximum chance to thrive?

A higher goal is helpful and I now realise unlocks the solution. That is to think in ways that maximise the chances of me and others to not just to be okay - to avoid any pain or discomfort ever (as avoidance and precluding painful emotions such as sorrow or discomfort also precludes experiencing joy and peace), but for me and others to be able to really flourish. This approach to thinking has five core aspects: creative influence, flexibility, communication and trust, and defining our boundaries.

• Creative Influence. Central to flourishing in all living beings is creative influence. Since the creative impulse underpins life, it’s not surprising that for people to flourish creative influence is key. Individual creativity enables us to adapt to survive and flourish in the particular set of circumstances that we find ourselves in, with the nuances that make some responses seem to be more suitable than others. Creative influence is different from control. And that difference means one helps us and others flourish and the other doesn’t. It takes us towards more helpful responses both to our own flourishing and also to a world that works for everyone.

• Flexibility. Trees withstand strong winds by flexing and now skyscrapers and bridges are designed to flex so they can withstand environmental pressures such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Earthquakes happen when natural movement/realignment in the earth gets stuck and the realignment ‘catches up with itself’ in a large, often destructive, jolt. Being influenced by others and world sensitively and responsively (or symbiotically) in and with the world around us is healthy. It puts us in a good relationship with the greater forces in the world around us. Put more personally, it enables us to receive insight, care and other “gifts” from those around us and to respond to the strongest of winds and earthquakes without cracking. This gives us resilience. Expressing creative influence and flexibility also makes us a healthy organism, rather an unhealthy one which the immune system of the world naturally attacks.

• Communication and trust. When we work sensitively, influencing and being influenced we create care for others, and build trust. Good communication, building trust, empathy and concern creates the conditions that enable people to access their best. It creates the potential for transformative relationships and situations that have a far greater potential. Ultimately this creates an environment puts people at ease and brings out the best in us, and hence less of a threat to others and more likely to experience care.

• Defining our boundaries. We can see our boundaries either as fortress walls, or more helpfully as places where creative exchange happens and collaborative potential can be released. We need boundaries but living creatures and living systems work best when their boundaries are permeable, flexible and evolving. And rich exchange that is the essence of relationship happens at the boundaries. Where we learn, receive, give, love, sense, experience, play and evolve. This requires sensitivity and constant rich and multi-level communication and negotiation/co-ordination.

Partly because there are so many possibilities for how things can emerge, this is a constant evolving emergent process requiring creative influence from us all to contribute, experimenting in finding ways that work both for ourselves and for others in complex and ever changing circumstances. Nature benefits from diversity. It brings different strengths and contributions and that builds resilience in an eco system with everyone playing a part.

Increasingly across society we have not valued this rich connectivity and under-invested in the exchange. Things don’t work when we are individualistic, controlling and living in strongholds. This creates the human cost of isolation, disenfranchisement, poverty, which are cancerous patterns in both humans and organisations.

This constant dance of creativity and re-balancing works through rich communication and exchanges that work multi-way. If we can reclaim this for ourselves and those around us we can release our full creative majesty and wonder and build a world where all can flourish.

As well as being just the way it works for the best - to value creative influence rather than control - there is an additional sweet bonus that accompanies the shift. With letting go of control comes flow. And with flow comes peak experience. Love is a phenomenon that disappears if we control it or the other.

In my next blog I plan to explore ways in which we might make the shift from wanting to be in control to the higher aspiration to live in a way where all can flourish.


I can see the advantages of flow in our approach to life when I teach people to ski. At first I often see stress and anxiety on their faces when they try to control the flow of their skis over the snow, with every muscle straining, anxiety etched across the face. But when I introduce them, on a safe slope to letting their skis fly over the snow and first gliding naturally to a halt on the flat, they feel the freedom and joy that comes with flow. As they learn to let the natural forces of turning gently check their speed in a way where their muscles are relaxed, they become open-handed, can see again, sense again, respond freely and fluidly – and it’s great!

Esther Ridsdale’s passion is working with people to tune in to the bigger picture and respond to challenges and opportunities in ways that have a positive and life-enhancing impact. Founding convenor of the Civil Society Forum, she brings 20 years experience running collaborative organisational delivery and performance improvement initiatives as a manager and consultant across the private, public, voluntary and community sectors. Esther works was a coach, organiser, facilitator, consultant, trainer and social activist. She is an accredited human systems dynamics practitioner, and as a personal coach, co-leader of retreats, youth and outdoor leader, she also works to support groups to tap into their individual and combined potential in all areas of their lives. esther.ridsdale@civilsocietyforum.net +44 (0)780 243 0246