The Liability of Self-reliance
I find that the highest performing leaders hire great people and are skillful delegators. This is a good thing because organizations are leaner and reliant on fewer people to accomplish more work. Yet I still see so many leaders for whom pacesetting (driving results, “setting the pace”) is their primary leadership style. And I also see a fair amount of pacesetting’s cousin, micro-management. With new leaders this is to be expected. Moving from individual contributor to leader is a big transition. It can be hard to hand things over to others when you know it will be easier (and better) if you do it yourself.
When I see a high degree of self-reliance and pacesetting with established leaders, it worries me. Highly self-reliant leaders don’t delegate well and they aren’t good at developing others. If development is the new promotion in our leaner organizations (and I believe it is) and our best development happens through challenging job assignments, reporting to someone who doesn’t delegate is a bigger problem. Talented people like to be challenged and they will move on if they don’t get the development they need.
Part of the problem is that our educational system and the way the professions are trained still celebrate self-reliance to a great degree. Yes, many MBA and business programs engage a more collaborative and team based learning curriculum. But leaders often come to their role through professional training that values autonomy and self-reliance. I am thinking particularly of engineers, physicians, pharmacists, pilots, lawyers and finance. I commonly see these professions in executive positions. Their teams want them to hand over challenging projects, but the boss struggles to really let go and trust others without finding ways to step in.
It makes a lot of sense. These leaders are often rigorously trained to be independent thinkers, to own their work and outcomes and work autonomously. They must learn vast amounts of complex information to ensure competence and safety and practice within rigorous ethical standards. In addition, they begin this odyssey in undergraduate school, while still young and forming their identity. Self-reliance is drilled into them. They often make great founders and entrepreneurs but struggle when their business starts to scale. It is somewhat less painful if they are in large corporations because they are likely to get more formal leadership development as their careers progress. And yet there is still a gap between learning how to do something and actually doing it.
In our highly connected world, self-reliance is becoming a bigger liability for leaders. Technology is making all of our jobs faster and more complex. Knowing how to inspire and motivate others to contribute their best is becoming an even more valuable competency. Learning to trust and rely on others can be scary for many of us. Leadership requires we surrender to that fact that we can’t do everything ourselves.
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Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a (mostly) monthly post about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.