Trust your team: four tips to stepping aside

When you maintain a leadership role, it’s tempting to take charge all the time. But you have to know when to hand off responsibility to members of your team. Leaders know when to make decisions, but they also know when to trust others to make those decisions for them.

Being a leader is an important role, and we often feel tempted to fulfill and build up those expectations. But an often unrecognized quality of leadership is knowing when to shut up and step aside. Not everything needs your stamp of approval or your opinion, so here are four tips to help you identify that moment when you’re not needed.

Your skill set isn’t involved

Good leaders realize that their knowledge and experiences are limited in few different aspects. That’s okay. You might know your organization better than anyone in the world, but some components will still require a specialized skill set that you don’t have. Trust the experts or your employees who carry the strengths that you lack. Make sure your talents are being used where they’re most needed, while you let others take care of those issues that function as roadblocks to your skill sets.

You have a full plate — delegate

Time is a luxury, so treat it like one. You don’t have to be at the forefront of every decision because there are other people in your organization who can do that for you. Recognize that and take advantage of that fact. Know what situations and components of your organization actually require your attention and know when you can afford to pass it on to a capable member of your team. They’re your team, so use them.

A new perspective doesn’t hurt

A great leader is always striving to learn new things and create new opportunities. There’s only one way to do that, and that’s by allowing yourself to take a minute to sit and listen to a few fresh voices. You won’t get the best work out of your team members if they’re waiting for you to tell them to jump, so let them know that their opinions and ideas matter. Let them work out problems on their own, and it’s likely they’ll do it better than you could have imagined.

Ego can make a team fragile

While you might be the most talented person in the world, you don’t and shouldn’t do everything. You won’t always know better, and thinking you do all the time could injure your team. Try to be humble, know your flaws and allow others to fill the gaps. Don’t let your self-importance get in the way and trust your team to do the job they were hired to do.

Learn “The Cubs Way” and Share the Win

Diamond6 Leadership & Strategy has a soft spot for the Chicago Cubs, as D6 CEO Jeff McCausland is a lifelong fan. But the Cubs are also a masterclass in leadership, especially when we consider General Manager Theo Epstein.

Epstein has broken two baseball “curses” during his 15 years as a Major League Baseball general manager. He first took on the helm of his hometown team — the Boston Red Sox  — where he brought the Curse of the Bambino to an end in 2004. In 2012, he came to the Cubs, completely rebuilt the team and won a World Series within five years.

He is a managerial legend now, but it still came as a surprise when he was named Fortune Magazine’s best leader in the world — even beating out the pope. Yet his reaction to the magazine’s honor also proves his qualities as a great leader.

The baby-faced manager, only 43, said he was taken aback by the top spot.

“Um, I can’t even get my dog to stop peeing in my house,” Epstein texted ESPN writer Buster Olney. “This is ridiculous. The whole thing is patently ridiculous.”

But it’s that exact dismissal that is evidence he is such a great leader. It is that rejection that proves his sense of modesty and humility — an integral characteristic of leadership. Epstein would be the first to say that he is not singularly responsible for changing the culture of an entire franchise and bringing the first baseball championship to the city of Chicago in 108 years. But it must be noted that his organizational changes brought the Cubs a victory.

“It’s baseball — a pastime involving a lot of chance,” Epstein told Olney, before bringing up a player he signed as an example. “If [utility player Ben] Zobrist’s ball is three inches farther off the line, I’m on the hot seat for a failed five-year plan. And I’m not the best leader in our organization; our players are.”

A weaker person would have immediately taken credit for others’ wins, but Epstein is unwilling to bask in that glory. Instead he readjusts it and places the honor at the feet of the members of his organization, such as the players.

A good leader knows that the successes of a “team” isn’t the result of any one person. We must recognize and acknowledge every individual’s contributions or else we create an environment that doesn’t encourage success. No organization wants to stifle good work, so understand the new “Cubs Way” and share the achievement in order to inspire accomplishment.

Strategic Foresight – Where Futuring, Scenarios and Strategic Planning Meet

“The future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed”- William Gibson

Why is it that some companies, like Apple, seem to live in the future creating products that consumers don’t even know they want or need, while others, like 133 year old Kodak, fail to sense the winds of change and collapse?

This failure to grasp and move into the future results from a lack of foresight at both the organizational and individual leadership level. Leaders cannot provide for the future unless they can “see” it or at least make a good guess about what it may look like. Of course, the future cannot be predicted – there are far too many variables shaping it. However, Strategic Foresight provides a structured way to imagine the possible and probable futures that might emerge, recognizing that many futures are possible. Strategic Foresight is not only sensing these possibilities but also understanding the driving forces and relationships shaping them.

Strategic Foresight is a complex, analytical approach organizations can use to better grasp and plan for the future. It is a powerful tool, helping leaders predict and understand the incoming changes that will impact their organizations, as well as formulating the strategies through which the organization will attempt to shape the future.

Bishop and Hines identify six major guidelines associated with Strategic Foresight:

  • It begins with a process of framing – establishing clarity about the mission.
  • The next step is scanning –mining the internal and external environment of the organization, looking for data, trends, beliefs and assumptions that may affect the future.
  • Scanning is followed by forecasting –analyzing and using all of the data and trends collected during scanning to create probable alternative futures. Forecasting provides scenarios against which the leader can monitor progress, look for leading indicators and maintain awareness of unexpected events called wild cards.
  • The final three guidelines follow the more traditional processes of visioning, planning, and acting based upon the forecasts and scenarios that were developed.
  • In summary, Strategic Foresight provides a set of probable futures (scenarios) for the organization as well as several alternative paths forward.

Foresight is also an important personal attribute of leaders. Robert Bruner, the Dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, put it this way in an interview in the Wall Street Journal: “I think of leaders as having many attributes, but one of the key ones is self awareness. Good leaders are present and engaged and alert…This awareness is almost an ability to see around corners, a capacity to look ahead, think strategically and imagine consequences.” Sharpen your awareness and foresight by trying some of the practices listed below:

  • Be present. Pay attention and maintain a 360°/top to bottom, inside/out view of your environment.
  • Become aware of the senses you are using to gain that awareness. Expand your way of observing. What do you know is happening and how?
  • Cross Index – Read books and periodicals outside of your personal and professional areas of interest.  Network with people outside of your profession and with people whose interests differ from your own.

In summary, Strategic Foresight helps leaders perceive positive signals, as well as unexpected events, allowing them to quickly recognize meaningful changes, adapt to them and select alternative strategies. Using Strategic Foresight, leaders, “… can create the future into which we are living, as opposed to merely reacting to it when we get there.”

[i] Hines, Andy & Bishop, Peter, editors, Thinking About the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight (Social Technologies, LLC: Washington D.C., 2006).
[ii] Wall Street Journal, “Professor Says Business Schools and Students Can Take Away Lessons From Financial Crisis,” August 20, 2009, p. B5.
[iii] Jaworski, Joseph, Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership, (Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco, 1998) p. 182.

James Davis is President of the Davis Group Ltd. which specializes in leadership development and executive coaching.  His book, Sacred Leadership: Leading for the Greatest Good will be published in May. The Davis Group Ltd. is a close partner and collaborator of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC.

This article is from our February 6, 2012 newsletter. Click here to view all our newsletter articles and features.