Agile Leadership and Empowerment: The Struggle To Let Go

The hardest challenge a leader faces is letting go. It’s a struggle because as leaders, when challenges arise all of our instincts tell us to take command and control the environment in order to reach the outcome we wish to see. This has been the standard for generations and whilst there may be benefits in the short term, in the long term, command and control leadership can disempower a team and limit their future growth potential.

In this article we’ll go over why empowered teams are necessary for your organisation to be agile and why being brave in letting go will help you as a leader get there.

In our recent article on The Future of Work and How Agile Fits, we described how important it is for your organisation to not only be capable of responding to change but being able to lead it. It’s crucial that as an organisation we achieve this in order to keep up with the rapidly changing customer demands. As traditional leaders, this is a heavy burden to be responsible for all the decisions and management that is required to keep up with the pace. But for an agile leader, it’s about letting go by co-creating an environment for empowered teams to stand up. Teams that share the responsibility of reaching your organisation’s outcomes, the decisions required and the self managing of each other on the road ahead. Instead of a burden, being a leader of an empowered team should be a joy.

What does an empowered team look like?

An empowered team has the power to make their own decisions. In David Marquet’s book, Turn the Ship Around, he treated his crew as ‘leaders, not followers’ and ‘give control instead of taking control’. Simon Sinek has said that, “there are leaders and those who lead.” (Start with Why, 2009) These are a group of individuals working together and leading the change. They work with their customers because they have the support of both their team members and leaders. They can operate productively because they don’t need to go through the hierarchy chain to get their work done, and better still, they take pride in doing their work well.

How do you let go?

At The Agile Eleven our rule of thumb is that the best decision is made by the person closest to the information. As a leader your role isn’t to be the ‘be all and end all’ of information nor should it be ‘The Decision Maker’. That is a manager not a leader. Letting go is about trusting that your team members can find the information and inspiring them to make the decision themselves. It’s not just about you placing your trust in them as a leader, but creating that environment where team members can trust themselves. They may get it wrong, they may fail once or twice. But so did you in your development as a leader and that’s why it’s important for you to be patient, show empathy and offer guidance for how they could do things differently in the future. Only then can your people grow as fast (or faster) than you have in the past.

How do you create an environment that supports empowerment?

We should note that there isn’t a cookie cutter approach to creating this. But there are consistent elements that will almost certainly encourage shared decision making, empowerment and trust. One key element is developing a shared understanding, or ‘consciousness’ across your team. Getting together regularly and talking about the work, the challenges and successes, will help achieve this. In a sense, your team are moving closer to where the information is, either by learning about each other's customer or area of focus. A shared understanding allows you as a leader to better understand how things are going whilst allowing your team to make those empowered, informed decisions.

What about the elephant in the room, the System of Work?

You can do all of the above but letting go as a leader is just one piece of the puzzle, the broader system. To truly empower your team members, your organisation needs to let go too. In our article What Is Organisational Agility and How To Achieve It, we talk about The System of Work as ‘how things get done here’. It’s not just how you and your leaders, lead. It’s the processes and procedures that define the level of trust and power in decision making within your organisation. They control behaviour just as much as your leadership style can directly influence your team.

One example is approvals. If an organisation requires team members who are closest to the customer to seek approval from you or others before they can continue, that is the organisation telling them ‘I don’t trust you.’ These are more subtle than leadership behaviour but they are just as important as how you are as a leader.

Conclusion

As Brene Brown recently wrote in Dare to Lead (2018), building trust is like collecting marbles. It’s something that takes time and builds. You’ll find as a leader that by letting go, you’re not just empowering your team members, you’re empowering yourself! Instead of micromanaging your team, you get to co-create the environment where they themselves can grow and lead. The more you do this, the better it gets, and the better your team is able to reach a level of maturity where they can not only adapt to the change - but lead it!

Takeaways

  • Letting go takes time
  • The best decision is made by the person closest to where the information
  • Empower yourself by empowering your teams
  • Letting go as a leader is equally important as your organisation empowering and trusting its people

Written by
Alistair Gray
Enterprise Agile Coach @ The Agile Eleven


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