Leaders Can’t Do Everything

I was reminded recently of an occasion when I was speaking with a leader who expressed real frustration about being overwhelmed at work. He was describing how he was obliged to be available to his team all of the time and how they were always asking his opinion of things even though he thought they ought to be getting on with doing the routine tasks. He was an energetic individual with lots of thoughts about how to move his part of the business forward and enjoyed engaging with others on this and almost any other topic that was related to how the business ran.

This was a person who was running to stand still, working extremely long hours yet was annoyed with himself for not seeing the business move as quickly as he wanted it to. Whether it was able to transform at the rate he desired is debatable. As a manager this person had been used to getting involved in the tasks of his team members and directing and instructing as and when necessary. Now, in a more senior role he was setting the direction but was uncomfortable with stepping back and trusting his people to get on and deliver their work in the way they deemed most appropriate.

He thought he had delegated but in fact his micro-leadership (not sure if this actually exists) of checking back more times than was necessary resulted in him being consulted on the most trivial of issues. Wanting to be helpful, he always gave his people the time they asked for and offered his views. He was able to keep this going for some time before it dawned on him that he was being dragged down into the minutiae of day-to-day operations, something he thought he’d moved on from. Of course if this had continued for any length of time the outcomes for the business and the leader himself could have been serious.

So what happened to change this situation? The Leader took a short time-out to think through what was happening. When I say short this was 3 hours away from his working environment that he deliberately set aside, and for once made sure he wasn’t going to be interrupted. He described how he tried to look at how he was operating ‘from the outside’, considering the previous week’s activities. It was only then that he realized that his team had in fact been leading him and controlling how he spent his time. Now, this was an individual who fully bought into the idea of the leader doing what they could to ensure those within their business can achieve the best that they can, Servant Leadership if you like.

Once he had recognized what was going on he had to figure out what he needed to do to alter the situation. This wasn’t a crisis or something that needed to be tackled head-on, it was simply a way of how he operated on a day to day basis and interacted with his team. As such, it didn’t need a major announcement but it did need a shift in his behaviour.

So what did he do? There were two things that he said were the obvious things that he did. Firstly, he spoke individually with all his leads to explain that from now on he was quite happy to offer views on whatever they asked but that he requested that they use their own judgment as to when to engage him. Secondly, at the next occasion when there was the opportunity to address everyone in the business he said the very same thing and added that he trusted each and every one of them to deliver their parts of the business. While these might have appeared pretty obvious the most difficult aspect for him was to curtail his own enthusiasm and desire to engage.

Did it work? The individual conversations and addressing the group had the desired effect although both sides did slip into old habits on occasions. But he started to respond to requests by asking “What do you think we should do?” and the more often he asked that question the less often the requests came in.

So, after a period of time this person had truly moved on from being the manager that he had excelled at previously to starting to become a leader and recognized that he was learning a different way of operating. He had started to let go and to trust in the abilities in all those around him. Above all else, he realized that he didn’t know everything there was to know about the business. It would have been foolish in the extreme to make decisions on some subjects when there were others around him who were far more knowledgeable and experienced and therefore better placed to do so. That was the hardest lesson of all to learn, but learnt it was.

You might also be interested in How To Be A Reflective Leader


3 thoughts on “Leaders Can’t Do Everything

  1. Great article Paul! My standard line to my team members is “I trust you to involve me when you feel it is justified, and to tell me to back off when it is not!”

  2. Thanks for your kind words. Yes, the leader took the opportunity to reflect on what was happening and was able to bring about some changes, as difficult as they would have been as they would have been altering ‘tried and trusted’ habits.

  3. Excellent post. I think micromanagement happens when successful managers progress through the ranks and lose touch with the familiar. They meddle in the affairs of others because that’s what they know. This leader is self aware. This leader changed his behaviour.

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