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Learning to Step Back

A common practice among some leaders is to tell people how to do something without ever telling them the mission or explaining why the mission is important. Overuse of the Directive leadership style tends to produce disengagement and leads to inferior results.

First, it teaches people to not take initiative to solve problems on their own. A leader who overuses this style is essentially saying, “Do what I tell you – nothing more, nothing less.” As a result, people miss out on the opportunity to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills and become over reliant on the leader for direction.

Second, it communicates mistrust and can produce anger in people who are told how to do something over and over again. After all, why would a leader need to repeatedly tell someone how to do something if they trusted team members could figure it out on their own? It communicates to them they are not perceived as competent and therefore must be told how to do something. When team members feel they are not trusted, the result is resentment and disengagement.

Develop the habit of communicating a clear, simple mission for what needs to be accomplished. Set clear boundaries, including defining when it needs to be accomplished. Let team members know your expectations for desired outcomes and that you expect them to solve the problem. In the military this is referred to as Commander’s Intent. Then get out of their way and let them figure out how to execute the mission.

This approach has four advantages to you and your team. First, it increases engagement and results in better solutions. Second, it pushes decision making to the lowest possible level, which builds agility. Third, it creates important development opportunities and results in a stronger team. Finally, it frees the leader to work at the right level.

Communicating a clear Commander’s Intent is crucial for empowering team members. When Commander’s Intent is unclear, empowerment is made more difficult. When clear, empowerment comes more naturally. Look for opportunities to step back from the “how” by communicating a clear Commander’s Intent and challenging team members to figure out how they are going to accomplish the mission. You will be surprised by the results.


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