Why you might be trying too hard as a leader (and what I learned that takes the pressure off)
Do you feel the pressure of being a leader? Ever lose sleep?
Get a migraine?
Yeah, me too.
After all, a lot of people are depending on us to get this right. The decisions we make have a tangible impact on people’s lives — like how much they enjoy their careers, whether or not they have the resources to be successful, not to mention the salaries needed to support families.
When you lead a team, there’s a keen sense of responsibility that goes along with it.
Leading well matters.
Which is why we spend so much time seeking out leadership advice. But the thing about advice is that while much is helpful and strategic, there are places where strategy of intent breaks down.
That may be why I missed that I’d been handed the best leadership advice I would ever receive on a schoolyard soccer field…
How the kids at recess got it right.
Growing up in Zambia, the bell would ring, and the kids would run outside as fast as they could.
There was a ball in a clearing with a couple of goals and some white lines. (If you are picturing a suburban American soccer field, you’ve missed the visual. This was not that manicured.)
We had 15 minutes.
The kids quickly pulled together their teams. The good catchers were appointed goalies. Fast runners were strikers. If you were big and strong, you were a defender. All of these designations happened in less than 60 seconds.
People who could play well would always get selected. People who couldn’t play were put in secondary roles. Jerks were slowly voted out of the game. Encouragers ended up in the center of the field.
Where was the teacher?
I have no idea. She was probably drinking tea.
There was a start time and an end time, and the plan was simple: get the ball in the opposite goal as many times as you can in 15 minutes. No one took a rest. No one sat on the grass.
There were no user manuals. No standards or formats.
If you wanted to be in the game, you were in the game, focused on a role you could do well.
How we as leaders so frequently get it wrong.
When you are feeling the pressure as a leader, it’s easy to over-engineer things.
We create organizational frameworks and attempt to impose them, then get surprised when people don’t react the way we hoped.
(It shouldn’t surprise us. After all, while we might be enamored of our own frameworks, we tend to dislike the frameworks others create for us.)
My observation is that in many cases we don’t need to create structure for what happens naturally. We are better off working with the natural flow of how people live and work.
Because while we may have had some experience attempting to force others to our will or rebelling against another’s will, we all have boundless energy for the things we want to do.
Which means many times, our best play as a leader is to stay out of the way.
But wait! Wouldn’t that result in chaos?
Let’s go back to recess…
On the soccer field, the self-organizing hierarchy was situational. It didn’t exist in the classroom, and it didn’t exist if you were playing a different game.
A kid’s strengths determined their role, and if they were in the wrong spot, it was quickly adjusted. (No kid wanted to waste even one of the 15 minutes).
Sure, a teacher could have assigned all of the roles, or even gotten on the field and played, but it would have killed the game. It wasn’t needed.
So, what is needed?
It’s easy to miss the importance of having goals and a soccer field.
Having a place to play doesn’t just happen organically.
Your team shows up every day to play on a field you have an ongoing role in creating.
And just like on the soccer field, every once in a while, there will be a conflict your team can’t navigate, and just like the teacher who came in periodically to break up a fight, you will be the one who steps in if something goes off the rails.
When leaders create a clean framework (goals, a ball, and a field of play) and let people go, good rises to the top, and poor performance gets voted off the field.
You can’t legislate productivity, because a lack of autonomy kills intrinsic motivation for playing the game.
And while we all know this at some level, the problem comes in because busy-ness (being overly involved in the output) makes us feel good. It’s how we measure our worth. But it doesn’t necessarily make us more effective. And worse, it can diminish the effectiveness of the team.
We’ve all heard people complain about micro-managers. The ones who come in and want to play all of the roles. Consider if the teacher had come to play on the field with us. Being twice our size, there would have been no more reason to play. We couldn’t have had impact. It wouldn’t have been fun.
A leaders role is different to those of the team members. It’s about giving them everything they need to make them successful — not about playing the game.
What happens when you make the shift
I wish I could say that I learned this at recess as a kid and it was my leadership method from Day One.
A few years into my company’s growth, I found myself exhausted, frustrated, and working so many hours that I practically slept at the office. (And when I didn’t, I took the office home with me.)
My epiphany came when a couple of consultants (who my team called “the Bobs” behind their backs) interviewed everyone in my firm. As I read through their assessment, the message came through loud and clear: I was the bottleneck.
My intense direction of play was killing people’s motivation.
When I changed my role from granularity to creating the field where others could play, my company’s growth exploded. You could see the visible shift in the trend line on our IBIDA.
When you step back and become the facilitator, you discover things.
After all, your team already knows if there is a slow defender trying to play striker.
And here’s the surprising thing…
Often it’s the organizational frameworks we’ve imposed as leaders that keep that person in that wrong place. When we remove the artificial structures (the how) and focus on the mission (the what), people figure it out (a new how that they own).
So, cast the vision, source the resources, and get out of the way.
Stop trying to complicate it.
Then you can use your newly freed up time to chase the higher-level goals or get some much needed recess.
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