How Much Leadership is Enough?

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How much leadership is enough? It’s one of the toughest dilemmas managers face. Too little, and your team will flounder like a rudderless ship. Too much, and you become the dreaded micromanager.  Our Consulting Director, Paul Spencer, describes a simple, innovative method for getting the balance right.  You can find out more about Paul on our “Our Resume” page, and you can contact him at

How Much Leadership is Enough?

By Paul Spencer, PMP

On my first day at a new job several years ago, my boss came by and asked me how I was settling in.

“Well, it’s my first morning, but so far so good,” I replied.

“Did you get a laptop?” he said.


“And did you get all the software you’ll need?”

“I think so.”

“Great!” he said, and smiled. “You’re good to go.” And with that, he walked off. Meanwhile, I sat there staring at my shiny new laptop, wondering what the heck I was supposed to do next.

I never did settle well in that team, and when the opportunity to move on came, I took it. My manager meant well, but I never felt like I could do my best work. I spent too much time trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing, and not enough time doing it.

How much leadership is enough? It’s one of the toughest dilemmas managers face. Too little, like my ex-manager, and your team will flounder like a rudderless ship. Too much, and you become the dreaded micromanager. There’s no easy answer, but here’s a principle that will guide you in the right direction: give your team what they need to succeed, then get out of their way.

That sounds simple, but what exactly does your team need to succeed? As I learned, it takes a lot more than just handing out laptops. Leaders need to be enablers. That word has picked up negative connotations in recent years, but I mean it in the classical sense: to supply people with the means, knowledge, and opportunity to succeed.

My old boss had the first step partly right. Obviously, people need the right tools to do their job. And make sure you check in regularly to confirm everyone has what they need, because some people will be afraid to ask. They’ll waste hours trying to bend ill-suited tools beyond their purpose, rather than request a $200 software package perfectly suited for the job.

The next step is training. Training is especially important if you’re asking people to do something they haven’t done before. Depending on the complexity of the task, they may need formal training. For simpler tasks, you might be able to assign a mentor, or give them examples to use as a template. Sometimes even experts need training. You may have hired the best Java developer on the West Coast, but she will need help to learn your build cycle and how handoffs to QA happen in her new environment. Don’t just throw her in at the deep end.

Speaking of handoffs, you need to be sure that everyone understands how your team operates. Start with the organizational structure and roles and responsibilities. People should understand the overall picture, and where they fit in it. Then make sure they’re clear on the processes: how the various positions interact, how handoffs should happen, and who they can go to for help in each area. Otherwise, you’ll fall prey to the “I thought he was doing it” syndrome, and work will fall through the cracks.

Once people understand how the team works, they need to know what’s important for them right now. Make sure each person understands their objectives, expectations, and priorities. The modern work environment is chaotic and stressful. We’re all being bombarded with a hundred emails a day, too many meetings, and constant interruptions. You can help your team navigate that chaos and stress by giving them clarity on what’s important. That way, they know what to focus on, and which of those hundred emails can be put aside.

Do a reasonableness check on your expectations too. Take into account people’s varying experience levels, especially when you’re planning work. Don’t just assume that all four of your developers can crank out code at the same rate. Senior developers are going to be much faster than trainees, and new team members are going to need time to come up to speed. Plan accordingly, otherwise you’ll put too much pressure on people.

The final piece of the puzzle is the one that many leaders find hardest to do. Give your team high levels of autonomy, and the opportunity to do what they do best every day. These might seem like two different things, but they’re tightly interrelated. People get great fulfillment from applying their talents to achieving a goal. Research has shown repeatedly that the carrot and stick approach – using a combination of rewards and punishments based on productivity – doesn’t work. It’s great for mechanical, assembly line tasks – pay people more, and they’ll make more widgets – but in environments that require complex and creative thinking, it has negative results. Promise of reward and threat of punishment actually reduces productivity. What really motivates people is the combination of autonomy, mastery and purpose – the opportunity to apply their talents to achieve a goal they believe to be worthwhile.

Giving people the opportunity to do what they do best is the easy part. Sure, sometimes resource constraints mean that people have to do work they aren’t ideally suited for. Generally, though, matching people to roles is straightforward, especially when you’ve worked with them long enough to understand where their talents lie.

Providing the right level of autonomy is much harder. Many leaders are reluctant to relinquish control over individual tasks, especially when they are personally accountable for overall results. And some leaders, like my old boss, go too far in the other direction. Here are some guidelines to help you find the sweet spot. First, when you assign a task, make sure the person fully understands what is expected. Be clear on what “done” means. Then agree a deadline for the task. If possible, you should let the team member set the deadline, rather than imposing it yourself. Then leave them to it. Use non-intrusive monitoring methods like daily standups, brief conversations, and Kanban boards to keep an eye on progress. Try not to get involved unless critical tasks are in danger of not being done on time.

You can enable your team to achieve great results if you follow these steps. Give them the tools, training, and resources to succeed. Make sure they understand their objectives, expectations, and priorities. And give them high levels of autonomy. Then get out of their way, and let them do what they do best. It’s harder than just handing out laptops, but the results will make your efforts worthwhile.

At Positive Disruption, we specialize in helping leaders get the most out of their teams teams. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation for your business.


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