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Leaders--Enable Others to Act

Lee Iacocca once said, “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” While that’s certainly a catchy and memorable statement, sometimes good leadership IS getting out of the way.

Once people are fully trained and competent, good leadership means setting high level goals and criteria for success, then getting out of the way so that the employee can structure the job in the way that makes most sense to them.

As with all human behaviors, the degree to which leaders get this behavior right falls on a bell curve. Some leaders will be consistently excellent in enabling others to act. The majority of leaders will get it right more of the time than not and some leaders will consistently resist enabling others. What does enabling others to act look like in practice? How do leaders become better at enabling?

Recently, 60 Minutes interviewed Jazz great, Wynton Marsalis. The interviewer pointed out that Mr. Marsalis did not conduct his band. Marsalis smiled and replied to the effect that he had tried to conduct. When he did that, his band members pointed to his seat in the trumpet section, motioning that he should return to trumpet playing. Marsalis leads from the trumpet section, which is his strength. He also enabled a band member who excelled at conducting to lead from the conductor’s stand. The lesson here is to lead from your strength and to enable others to lead from theirs.

As leaders, we start out intending to do just that, yet sometimes retreat from enabling. What causes us to do that?

  • Fear. Conditions change and the business isn’t producing expected results. It’s a natural temptation to want to have the feeling of being in control again and one way to do that is to take decision making and tasks away from others. Resist the temptation.
  • Employees make mistakes. When they do, don’t take the task back or the authority away. Coach them through what happened and what they can do better next time
  • The employee got the job done the “wrong” way. The first question leaders must ask themselves is “Did I specify the parameters clearly?” If not, it’s your responsibility. Another investigative question is, “Did they do it wrong or just differently from the way I would do it?” If it’s just different, let it go. Finally, if it was truly wrong (unethical, incorrect, illegal) deal with the problem in the course of your normal performance procedures.
As leaders, the more we strive to enable others to act, the higher the overall performance levels will be. People will step up and be inspired by a leader who trusts their ability, their intelligence and their commitment to do a great job.

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Expanded information, case studies, business applications and missed opportunities from the real world that you can use to further leadership development in your organization, is in our quarterly journal Leaders’ Work. For a sample issue, click here