Leading as a passenger
For many leaders who are accustomed to being in control in their lives and at work giving up the reigns can be extremely difficult. I compare it to teaching your teenager how to drive. When a new driver is practicing driving, you sit next to them as they take the steering wheel and brakes; they are in control and you are there to offer (hopefully calm) guidance and advice. I know it doesn’t always work that way.
Being a leader has a lot in common with the parent helping their teen to learn driving skills. Leadership is a hands-off activity that allows your team to take control of the daily work while you guide and coach from the passenger seat. It can sometimes be hard to respectfully refrain from trying to grab the steering wheel or putting the brakes on.
Letting go and allowing your team to take the steering wheel is not always comfortable. There will be mistakes made, but if you learn to pay attention without meddling while providing a light touch in guiding them, it can also be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll have.
As a leader, you’ll be most successful when you don’t try to drive for others. Learning to sit in the passenger seat isn’t easy, but it can be a great ride when you:
Trust them. How do you know if your staff is capable if you don’t trust them to do the things they were hired to do? Trust that they are, and your advantage is that they will trust you back. If the level of work you give them has a mix of things that meet or exceed what they are capable of, chances are that you’ll be glad you allowed them to drive.
Lead with clarity. Be clear about your expectations and outcomes. Go ahead and tell them why you are requesting that they do the work you’re delegating. Make sure these initial conversations are two-way so that you can be assured that they understand what you are asking them to do. They will be most successful when you clearly dialog with them about the work they need to do.
Are available. Especially when your team members are learning new things, make sure that they know when you are available to talk through their dilemmas. Perhaps you might want to set up meetings with them more frequently than you have, or make sure you put time into your schedule to check in with them to ask if they have questions or need assistance without falling into the trap of solving all the problems for them.
Coach them along the way. You still need to be informed of the work your staff is doing, but you should do your best to refrain from telling them how to do it. And unless they ask for instruction or they are getting into trouble, lay off on the advice-giving and problem-solving. Instead, gently guide them with questions that help them to figure out the best way to proceed: “What’s your next step?” “How will you begin?” and “What do you need from me?” are great questions to ask.
Encourage, thank, and celebrate. These are the seemingly small things (to you) that are big things to your staff and the success of your organization. When they are on the right track, encourage them to go further. Thank them for what they do well. Celebrate success so that everyone can see great examples of work well done.
Leading from the passenger side isn’t easy, but when done well, it can be a rewarding experience for a leader to watch employees develop, learn their own ways of getting things done, and become an example for others.