Delegate until you’re uncomfortable, then delegate a little more
Trust and Empowerment
“Tell people what you want doing, not how to achieve it, you will be amazed by their creativity”
Dwight D Eisenhower.
Having spent a long time in the Public Sector (the British Army), I have often thought that it is easier to let go, to let your team ‘crack on’ when the bottom line is not measured in financial terms. After all, if there are no share holders screaming for more profit and no board looking down from the ivory tower expecting you to deliver more £s, $s etc then letting other people make the decisions has to be straight forward, doesn’t it? Well, reassuringly, letting go in the Public Sector is also difficult. For many, regardless of whom they work for, trusting the team, I mean really trusting the team, allowing them to make some of the big decisions is very difficult. However, if you can bring yourself to do it, the rewards can be overwhelming.
Most people who rise to leadership positions are ambitious and keen to get on. It stands to reason that in order to progress and climb the greasy pole to the board room, the team that you lead must deliver. How on earth will they deliver the goods that will get you noticed? If you feel that way, and many do, you will naturally want to make all the decisions, that way you have complete control.
History is littered with stories of once great leaders who forgot how to let go. In many of these instances they had previously empowered and, more importantly, trusted their people, but at some point they lost sight of this. Perhaps the best examples in the 20th Century are Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein. In 1939 the Nazis crossed Europe at break-neck speed conquering all before them and almost forcing the British Empire to its knees. Hitler’s leaders were empowered, trusted and encouraged to exploit opportunity; indeed the NATO Doctrine of Mission Command, where trust and empowerment are pre-eminent has its roots in the German’s Aufstragstaktik. Leap forward to 1943-44 and something had changed. Gone was the trust, empowerment and belief in subordinate commanders to be replaced by a lack of cohesion and centralised command. The man could not let go and consequently stifled any of the creativity he had encouraged a few short years before. Similarly Saddam did much to bring about Iraq’s demise in both Gulf wars. He was both the planning and decision making hub. All decisions were his, this was compounded by poor communication with his subordinates and a reluctance to encourage creativity.
Whilst some of the previous paragraph may be new to you, I doubt that the concept is. So why does seniority often create a reluctance to let go? What are we scarred of? Are we the only ones endowed with sufficient wisdom, judgement and clarity of thought to be able to make the decisions? We know what we should do, but somehow nobody can do it as well…strange; there was a time when we weren’t so old, we had great ideas and we were desperate to unleash them on the world. The senior people in our organisations were stifled by something, afraid to confront unorthodox views for fear of upsetting the status quo…you get my drift.
Jump back a few years. Can you remember what it was like to be the ‘new guy’, the ‘office junior’? You had loads of good ideas, you were motivated, well educated and keen to impress, but all too often your view was at best considered briefly and dismissed, and at worst instantly ignored.
There are two forces at play here: trust and empowerment. If you take the leap of faith and let your people make the decisions, you will be amazed by the results. By the same token, listening to the ‘new guy’ does a number of things. Most importantly it says that their opinion matters and we are going to listen to it. Now if you’re going to follow this path (and by the way I recommend that you do), you’ve got it do it credibly, do it like you mean it – if not, it will be wasted effort and probably more detrimental than doing nothing at all. Your people need to be educated in the way that the organisations thinks; what your philosophy is; what the future will look like; where the parameters lie and what resources are available. The fundamental point here is that we are not in the business of producing automatons who do everything in a uniform manner. On the contrary, you want your people to be creative, to think laterally. Therefore the crux of this education is ensuring your people know how to think not what to think.
Of course that idea, the one from the new guy, might just be the one that satisfies the share holders and those who dwell in the ivory tower!
Let go, listen, trust and empower. You have selected the right people, they will deliver and you (and the board/share holders) can bathe in their glory.
So what do trust and empowerment have to do with leadership?
Among the enduring characteristics of leadership is the requirement to do the right thing. It is in doing the right thing that trust is built. If you take nothing else from my thoughts take this useful little expression…”do what you ought to do, not what you want to do”. I could leave it there, but I won’t!! It is in doing the right thing that real trust is developed within an organisation. The requirement to do the right thing is so important that when leaders stray from the path, their failings are laid bare and the consequences both personal and professional can be catastrophic. Think Clinton/Lewinsky or Profumo/Keeler. Even in France, where erring from the path is all “OK” and often the done thing, just over a year ago Mr Hollande had to do some fast-footwork to keep his house in some semblance of order. I am not seeking to judge any of those whom I have mentioned, suffice to say, in general terms we expect our leaders to do what they ought, not what they want. I was reassured a couple of years ago by the Nation’s reaction when it emerged that Chelsea and England star John Terry had been having a relationship with one of his colleague’s wives. I had thought that in this era of hitherto unprecedented tolerance (in the UK), that ‘Joe Public’ would not have cared less. However, when presented with the event, the Nation quickly demonstrated that it was ‘wrong’. The rest is history.
Whilst a little less salacious that the examples above, I found the MP’s expenditure scandal to completely vindicate my view of the importance of trust. On the whole I feel that British politicians are a reasonably trustworthy bunch, or I did prior to the expenditure debacle of 2008-09. Those we had elected ignored the rules, or rather established their own set of far more acceptable rules in order to make the most of their allowances. When challenged most of them defended themselves with a litany of excuses including ‘everyone does it’, ‘it’s always happened this way’ and my favourite ‘I don’t earn enough as an MP, I could earn more outside Westminster, this just brings me into line with my peers’. Of course, on this occasion the MPs realised that you reap just what you sow; once again the rest is history.
Clearly trust and empowerment are fundamental to good leadership and cohesive organisations, but there is more to it than that. Without either of them a leader and the organisation they lead will be on a downward trajectory. Put simply trust is the glue that holds the team together; empowerment is the catalyst that allows the team to excel.