Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

There are many “leadership strategies” out there and many books or articles (like this one) about this topic. Personally, I like to read as many of them as I can because I think there is something to be learned from all of them. There is one leadership strategy, however, which I have heard many times before, including by from some of the most admired leaders of this time, yet I remained perplexed on how it actually represents good leadership. I have seen leaders implement this strategy and brag about it but in reality not really practice good leadership. What is this mysterious strategy? “Hire good people, and get out of their way.”

I have done no research on this strategy nor have I really tried to figure out who coined it and what they meant by it, but based on several interactions with people who thought this was a good strategy, it is hard to not react to why it can be so dangerous if it is applied verbatim. At the surface, it does make sense: Step one, “Hire good people.” Yep, agree – that does seem pretty fundamental to being a good leader. Step two, “Get out of their way.” Sure, no one wants a leader looking over their shoulder or creating barriers to getting things done. Elon Musk famously wrote a letter to his employees about this very topic.

Related: The Middle Level Leader

See, the problem is that if you take this strategy for only what it seems at the surface, you are missing some key aspects to true leadership. In reality, this philosophy would be much better, although admittedly not as catchy and easy to say, if it were “Hire and continually develop good people, mentor and coach them on your vision, and avoid creating unnecessary barriers that prevent them from doing what they do best everyday.” If we wanted to make it a little catchier, maybe it would be “Hire and mentor good people and pave the way for them.”

In the January-February 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review, Syndey Finkelstein talks about why the best leaders are great teachers. One of the interesting points of the article is the idea that leaders should be continually meeting face to face with employees as a way of mentoring and teaching them. Depending how hard you want to think about this, it could seem counter intuitive to the “get out of the way” philosophy where it is believed that the employees are so good at what they do, leadership is just in their way of getting it done. No mentorship and teaching required, they are good people…remember?

One place where leaders do regularly get in the way is in day-to-day decision making. It may be what Musk was talking about in his open letter to employees where he discussed inappropriately requiring your staff to go through you for decisions, especially those impacting other areas of the business. It could also be getting in the way by not providing them the resources to know where to go to get decisions made. Either way, being a roadblock to decision making and getting things done is definitely getting in the way. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe there are decisions to be made by leaders and situations where employees need their help making decisions, but it should be understood that those who should be making the decisions are empowered to do so. The remedy to this is not becoming absent and non-visible to your staff; a method that I think some leaders who like the “get out of their way” inappropriately apply.

Businesses are having to move faster and faster to continue to meet customer demands and stay competitive. It should be rare that your employees can just run autonomously without a leader’s vision and direction as part of their leadership strategy. There is a quote that I have always held onto without knowing the original source: “The world makes way for those who know where they are going.” They key here is “know where they are going.” Like the world, leaders should make way for employees who know where they are going. This is done by sharing a vision of the destination (i.e. telling people where they are going) and coaching them to help them get their. In order to do this, some questions to think about during your conversations with your staff that will help you determine how to pave the way:

  1. What are some of the things you rely on me for that you wish you had more knowledge or autonomy to do yourself?
  2. Where are there other barriers that need to come down to make it easier or quicker for you to get things done?
  3. Where or when do you need me the most?
  4. What else can I do to ensure you are able to do what you do best, each and every day?

The get out of the way strategy seems to suggest that the only thing preventing good employees from doing a good job is their leader getting in the way. My argument is that this should not be true if you are a good leader. A good leader should know what their employees need and not need and provide for those needs and not create roadblocks for the rest (see, I didn’t say “stay out of the way”). There are plenty of other obstacles in a company that a leader should be actively working to remove. I believe having a vision and direction for people and mentoring and helping them understand how this connects to their job is imperative to good leadership. This is why I am going to think about this strategy a little differently as, “Hire and mentor good people and pave the way for them.”

One comment

  • Arun Dongrey

    A major problem some bosses, who hire adequate incumbents, come across is: ‘The good people do not take them as their boss’. What should such individuals be advised to correct in themselves ?

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