Sometimes Leaders Need to Get Out of the Way

“90% of what we call management,” Peter Drucker said, “consists of making it difficult for people to get things done.”

I believe a leader has numerous roles to play, among them being to: confidently paint a picture of a better future; help determine the path to achieving that future; and create an open environment and solid infrastructure that enables people to win and share in the gains they create. Bosses who make decisions for their people may feel better about making those decisions. But their need for control saps the energy and enthusiasm of the people who have no commitment to decisions that were made for them.

“90% of what we call management,” Peter Drucker said, “consists of making it difficult for people to get things done.”

I believe a leader has numerous roles to play, among them being to: confidently paint a picture of a better future; help determine the path to achieving that future; and create an open environment and solid infrastructure that enables people to win and share in the gains they create. Bosses who make decisions for their people may feel better about making those decisions. But their need for control saps the energy and enthusiasm of the people who have no commitment to decisions that were made for them.

Jean Pierre Garnier, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline says in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that empowering employees requires business leaders who are willing to let go of their need to be in charge of everything.

I suggest there are at least two times in particular when leaders need to get their micro-managing faces out of the room and let people do what they’re good at–taking organizations to performance levels previously thought unimaginable.

  • First, when the leader knows less about the work than the people assigned to do the work. People doing the jobs every day are the experts at what they do. The late Frank Perdue walked me through one of his poultry processing plants one day. “See that guy over there,” Frank said. “His name is Keith. He’s an eviscerator. He knows his 25 square feet of space better than anyone in the company. So, when I want to know something about what goes on in that 25 square feet of space, I go ask Keith.” The people doing the work are there every day, all day, touching and touching and feeling the work. Odds are great that they know it better than their supervisors. So get out of the way, unless of course, you want to learn what goes on in their 25 square feet of space.
  • Second, when the creative process is at work. Creative work such as developing new products or services requires innovative people who have permission to make mistakes. Innovation is a sloppy process. Having a boss around shifts the dynamic because people want to please the boss. The sloppiness that’s needed to build creative successes often gets suppressed with the boss in the room. 3M has the strongest innovative culture of any company that I’ve consulted to. Bill Coyne, their EVP of R&D for many years, said that a big part of his job was to leave people alone and make sure others did, too. He said: “After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every week to see how it is doing.”

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