Based in Sydney, Australia, Foundry is a blog by Rebecca Thao. Her posts explore modern architecture through photos and quotes by influential architects, engineers, and artists.

When Leading is Letting Go

Leadership is a lot of things, and often it involves direct coordination of effort amongst a group or people. Leadership often requires that we be actively involved in moving things forward, working on the how and why. As an organizational performance guy, I often look to systems and structure as my tools for leadership. I believe in driving alignment, simplification, and vision. That said, I experienced a situation the other day that reminded of an important learning about letting go.

I watched a team work the other day and realized they were completing a project that I would have typically been brought in on. I wasn't. When it came time to present the results I was prepared for something that would most likely be random and not in step with the intended overall direction of the project. To my surprise, it was actually the opposite. Time and time again I've had to step into very similar situations to drive alignment and execution, but this time I didn't. Why? What was the difference? How did a group of people come together and deliver on point without direct leadership? Well, we have to take a small detour on motivation to get to the answer.

Motivation is a funny thing. One of my favorite books on the subject is, "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us", by author Daniel Pink. With a compelling case, Pink concludes that we are not exclusively, not even primarily, motivated by direction or reward. We are more effectively motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Pink writes, "autonomy leads to engagement... and only engagement can produce mastery". Did you catch that there? I'm a visual guy, so maybe this would help:

As a leader, it's so draining to be the only source of motivation. It just feels like a huge problem. If you feel the same way, know you're not alone! Gallup research suggests that 50 percent of employees are disengaged and another 20 percent are actively disengaged. Did you catch that? 70 percent of employees, as in 7 out of every 10, are not engaged. Wow.

So bringing things full circle to my leadership lesson, I knew this information but it hadn't really sunk in until this experience. The reason why this ream had been successful without direct leadership is because they where motivated by mastery, purpose, and autonomy. Maybe just as important, they where guided not by direct leadership but by culture. This project had a group of talented people that where given the opportunity to succeed in a project that fit their unique gifts incredibly well. Success came because the cultural ground work had been laid, the cast of players was right, and the motivation was there. It's in these situations that I've now found the best thing I can do as a leader is just let go. When you're driving change, it takes a lot of direct involvement. It's important to keep an eye on that involvement, though, and recognize when it's time to step back and let a great team have autonomy over their work. This autonomy leads to greater engagement, greater levels of mastery, and then even more autonomy.

Process for Letting Go
1. Lay the a solid cultural foundation (how we do things)
2. Create the right cast of players with the right chemistry and talents
3. Allow for autonomy
4. Create the expectation and provide the resources for mastery
5. Be sure purpose is clear

Google, If You're Reading This...

Sticky Stuff, Take 2