A challenge in leadership is to develop the capacity to suspend control – to fight your need to control the outcome. But incrementally suspending control is necessary if you are to empower your team members to become the best that they can be. It also provides an opportunity to practice maturing your intent by shifting your attention from outcome to process.
Suspending control is not simply a behavioural practice to change. Intent is what ultimately drives behaviour and is where the change needs to happen.
The workplace is in some ways similar to a sports game.
A task or a ball is passed from one person to the next in order to achieve an outcome or a goal. The role of the leader as a coach is to watch the game, observe every move of the players, and give immediate feedback that will improve their skills and ability to perform at their best.
By watching the game intently the coach spots each player’s needs and strengths to determine what position they should play. In doing so the coach enables the team to win the tournament rather than settle for a trophy at the end of the game.
But leaders get this wrong in a few ways. Firstly, they run onto the field to score the goal! This is problematic most obviously because the leader is thereby thwarting team members’ efforts. This can be discouraging, offensive and frustrating. The team member is doing everything to play her best game, the goal posts are in sight, and from left field comes the boss wanting the ball!
The players are likely to put in less effort in future, so the coach will have to run onto the field earlier and earlier as the disengaged players coast along in safe-mode (and, most likely, updating their resume between games).
Secondly, as long as the coach is on the field, his attention is on the ball, the goal posts and the scoreboard. While he may glance around to see where immediate key players are, his eyes will not be on the game to watch what’s playing out across the field. He is unable to provide sufficient feedback to improve the game of all the players.
Still, there might be times when it is appropriate for the leader as a coach to be on the field and among his players. But leaders must understand why they do this – their deeper motive – and consider its impact on their teams, and the overall result.
Providing feedback to leaders on the results of leadership diagnostic reports has given me some insight into understanding what might drive this behaviour. These reports provide leaders with feedback from their direct reports to understand how they are experienced by them, day to day.
Where team members indicate that they do not have sufficient authority to be effective in their roles, this often indicates a leader’s reluctance to suspend his need to control outcomes. This highlights the fundamental conflict between control and trust. You simply can’t have both simultaneously.
Compounding this further is the double-edged-sword nature of trust. One expression of trust is whether you are trusted in the eyes of others – whether you are considered trustworthy. The other is your perceived willingness to confer trust in others, to be trustful of them.
When an individual is highly trustworthy, he may yet find it difficult to be trustful of others – in other words, to trust that others will “get it right”, or do something as well as that individual believes he would.
This speaks to the issue of reliability – something we have come to not only expect of ourselves, but also know that others have come to expect of us. When a leader is considered to be very reliable (and therefore trustworthy) among his peers, it is because he is consistent at delivering on his promises, he seldom falters.
But the more reliable the individual is, the higher the standards to which he holds himself, and therefore the more likely he is to expect his team members to uphold these high standards too. This makes it quite difficult for him to trust others to do their jobs without having a say in how they should do them! He may experience a strong need to check up on his people and manage the outcome as best he can. Nobody drops the ball on his watch, dammit!
This might lead to the issue of humility, and help uncover the leader’s intent, his deeper motive. Does he concern himself with the significance others afford to him, or does he grant significance to others by seeking value in their ideas and insights? This can shed some light on what is driving the behaviour of the leader. It takes humility, generosity and courage to find it deep within oneself to put the interests of others – their personal growth – ahead of one’s own.
Is the coach running onto the field because he believes himself to be the only one capable of scoring the goal. Or does he actually want to be the one to score the goal and get the glory? Or is he running onto the field because he is afraid that the player might not score the goal and he will lose the game and possibly also lose face?
Perhaps he is on the field because he believes that his being there is in support of the players and he wants to do all he can to help the team? If so, is he in the way or is he just supporting while trying his best to get back onto the side-lines to watch the game?
This is a lot to consider – but the cost is high if one does not pinpoint what is really at play. In the absence of a diagnostic, some personal reflection, vulnerability and open communication with team members can go a long way towards appropriately getting off the field and learning to watch the game to enable the players.
What you really need to decide is: are you in this to be a manager or a leader? Managers manage resources to achieve a result. They control their people to achieve the results that they desire.
When you are responsible for a certain function within an organisation, you are by default a manager. Managers manage things – like budgets, processes, inventory, projects … and people.
We reduce people to things when we try to manage them.
Leaders, on the other hand, lead people! It would be strange to say that you lead a chair!
Managers are responsible for what they GET from their people, leaders, on the other hand, are there for their people – for what they GIVE of themselves, to the people they lead.
Leadership, therefore, requires a deliberate shift in intent to focus on your people. Yes, you have to manage all the other things too, that is your job. But the people you are accountable to lead become your focal point – your opportunity to enable greatness in others, to develop exceptional talent.
This requires a shift in your intent from viewing your people as your means to get the job done, to seeing the job as an opportunity to teach them something. To use your experience to grow exceptional talent.
Shifting your intent as a leader requires a preparedness to let go of your need to control the outcome. When you do this, your people will experience that you are sincere in your intent to use the job as a tool to teach them something, to enable them to grow and to thrive. When they experience that you are there to give to them in this manner, they become willing – and grant you legitimate power.
You are only granted legitimate power when your power is deemed to be legitimate in their eyes. When they perceive that you are in the relationship not for your own self-interest and what you want to get, but for what you are prepared to give to others, they grant you power.
In the words of William Henry Harrison: “The only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed.” Power is given, control is taken.
Managers revert to control in the absence of legitimate power. Leaders exercise this legitimacy to enable the excellence of their people.