I recently had lunch with my good friend Lynn to catch up on life and work. He is one of the smartest people I know, and he makes me smarter whenever we talk. I mentioned a frustrating session with a client who struggled to see and identify a critical problem that once solved, would make solving other problems easier. It was painful time watching them talking about the wrong problems for so long until finally seeing what had been obvious since the beginning. I told Lynn I was frustrated with myself that I didn’t ask better questions to help them see it for themselves sooner. He smiled and told me, “It wasn’t your job to help them see it, it’s your job to stay back and let them see it for themselves. When you let them see it on their own, they will own it.” He was right, because once they saw it, they owned it and things began moving forward.

As a leader, you need to be ready to help your team when needed, i.e., those times when others will be harmed if you don’t help, or they might damage their career in a way that will be hard to repair. Those though are isolated times. What I’m guilty of, and most leaders are too, is we like to fix things. Fixing makes us feel good so we jump in and fix something that no one asked us to fix. We feel good when fixing something and don’t realize helping can hurt, as we might devalued the person we’re trying to help. I remember Kate knocking on my door asking to come in, then closing the door. She took a deep breath and said, “I want to tell you something. I need you to listen, but I don’t need you to try to fix it. I just need you to hear what I have to say.” Wow was that ever a wake-up call that I needed to stop being a fixer for everything.

When I reflect on my career, my greatest growth, achievements, and accomplishments all came when someone trusted me and let me struggle for a while and ultimately figure it out. The same was true for the talented people I was blessed to work with, they flourished best when I stepped back and let them be. Sure, they sometimes took the long route, but in the end they always made the right decisions.

My job as a leader is to let people alone. I’m there when they need me for guidance, or to “grab their ankles before they go over a cliff.”  I’m a “lifeline” to hang onto. Other than that, I need to “do no harm.”

When speaking and consulting I often use an exercise asking a series questions, and one I regularly use is: If you are given a critical project to complete, your preference is?

  1. Work alone with clearly defined instructions on the process to follow to do the work
  2. Work alone with clearly defined objectives, but I choose how the work is done
  3. Work on a team with clearly defined instructions on the process to follow to do the work
  4. Work on a team with clearly defined objectives, but we choose how the work is done

Over 95% of all responses are either “b” or “d”. It’s clear they want direction, individually or as a team, but to be left alone to figure out how to accomplish it.

If you want to be a great leader stop helping and start letting them figure it out on their own. 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves. Philippians 2:3

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