Leading By Letting Others Lead Themselves

We frequently hear messages about ‘must-haves’ and how we’ve ‘gotta have it.’ It seems we spend much of our lives aspiring to acquire. In so doing, we can easily fail to recognize what we shouldn’t own, especially the challenges and difficulties that others need to solve through their own personal leadership. Wise leaders know when to step back from the decisions others must make including the consequences of those decisions. Let me provide an example from parenting. While I do not think of business leadership in terms of paternalism, I hope that my analogy conveys an important principle of leadership.

I have six sons, three of whom are in the teen years. As of this writing, my oldest is about to start his senior year in high school. Last year, companies that provide ACT/SAT preparation courses started spamming our home with offers. He seemed uninterested in the prep tutorials. Now, most parents know from experience that ACT/SAT scores are pretty important. We see that great scores there (often) lead to acceptance at better universities which (hopefully) means a better experience which (probably) leads to a better career and more pleasant life etc.. My son became (understandably) annoyed by our initial entreaties for him to consider these prep courses. I finally asked him, “Son, how involved do you want us in your ACT preparation?” He looked noticeably relieved to get this off his chest and quickly but politely responded, “Not at all. I’ve got this.” I told him, “Great. Just let me know if you need anything.” When his scores arrived I said, “It’s a great score, but even more important: This is your score. You did it your way. You owned it and earned it.”

As we lead organizations we sometimes let our experience get in front of the chances for others to learn. Think about it: It is very likely that the lessons you value the most in your life, the one’s that have shaped your thinking and action the most spring from experiences that probably entered with your saying, “I’ve got this.” You then marched forward learning from successes and setbacks that you owned. This is very true for me. Not all of my decisions have been brilliant, but I’ve learned from every one of them. I’m glad that I either had wise leaders who stepped back enough to let me learn or, in other cases, where I had enough resilience and confidence to not let others keep me from going ahead with what I knew must be done.

There is inherent risk in this kind of leadership. Some initiatives will fail (even spectacularly). People will sometimes let us down. But, it is only in creating the adequate space for failure will there be room for success. As we demonstrate personal leadership and recognize the need for others to do the same within their sphere of influence the organizations we will be in a better position to drive innovation and operational excellence.

Quick Questions To Ask Yourself:

  • Is this really my problem?
    • I have never done my kids’ homework. I’ve always told them, “I’ve already graduated and have multiple degrees. Your grades won’t help my career.”)
  • Is this a safety/security issue?
    • Sometimes leaders have to step in and lay out the safety perimeter and plan so nothing catastrophic occurs. Failure is not the same as catastrophe!
  • Am I hiring talented people who deserve the trust?
    • It’s much easier to step back from decisions others make when we believe the risks are lower. When a trusted and competent member of the team tells me, “I’ve got this,” it is comforting rather than terrifying.
  • What’s the best way to offer support here?
    • Aspiring leaders will not want to be left entirely alone. They need to know that while they own the initiative and are accountable, they also can get the help they need (for example, increased resources, stronger sponsorship, and so on).

–John R. Durant © 2011


About John R. Durant

Drawing on years fostering innovation in the high-tech industry, most notably at Microsoft, John is a principal researcher at Savvysherpa building new businesses.
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