Leadership =/= Control

Trapped
Credit: xkcd

Currently, I’m reading Tim Harford’s Adapt (Amazon). It’s a fascinating book, quite different from the Undercover Economist (Amazon) – which is also excellent. He writes about the importance of experimentation and feedback, and the insanity of centralized military planning – where an individual soldier can shoot to kill, but the General running the base can’t approve a few thousand dollars needed spending.

Seriously fascinating. And timely for me, because lately I’ve been thinking about how we see leadership as being in control, where in fact it’s the opposite.

When you are appointed, or step up, to lead other people, it’s because you’re trying to achieve more than one person can alone. Giving up control and trusting other people to get stuff done is crucial, otherwise you’re just a bottleneck. And it doesn’t matter how hard you work or how brilliant you are, ultimately you will be limited by the fact that there are only 24 hours in the day, and you are just one person. Maybe you trust one sidekick. Still doesn’t scale. Two people and 24 hours each is not double the control, unless you’ve mastered telepathy.

In which case, ignore me. Clearly we live in different worlds.

Aside from the time issue of micro-managing, it’s soul destroying to the people being micro-managed. Nothing seems to destroy someone’s ability to make decisions as much as the feeling that whatever decision they make, it will never be the right one.

Of course, as a leader, you need to know what’s going on. Being too hands-off won’t do either. Looking at people who I think are great leaders, it seems that their strategy is to be approachable, non-judgemental, and supportive. They don’t need to micro-manage because they create an environment and build relationships such that people will come to them if there is a problem.

This is hard work. And it takes time. There’s people who hate to seem less than perfect in any way, and it’s really, really tough to get them to trust you with their failings. And you have to learn to be open with your own, too. You need to be awesome enough to inspire respect, but not seem so awesome that someone feels that you would never understand screwing up.

There are the people who want to tell you how awesome they are. Can’t stand those people. Then there are those who will tell you how they’ve screwed up. They are the genuinely awesome, I think. They are the people who others feel they can turn to when they screw up.

The other day I spent some time talking to a new grad who was feeling inadequate. I told them about the myriad of ways I feel inadequate too – in this circumstance it was this, in this circumstance it was that, now it’s something new. My message – OK, you feel like you’re not doing great right now, but that’s normal. Now you need to figure out if you change your circumstances, will you just feel inadequate in a different way to how you do now?

The message of the book? You need to fail to figure out what works. As a leader, you need to allow for failure in order to build something bigger than yourself. Micro-managing and control-freakery might eliminate failure, but they also eliminate great success.

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