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100% Chance

As a young Second Lieutenant in a rifle platoon I was expected to train my team to lead without me. Given the grim battlefield life expectancy of a 2LT this made a lot of sense. I’ve carried that message over the years because it applies so well to so many situations: You may find yourself unexpectedly placed in a leadership position.

Twenty five years later: The team at my last company had a habit of deferring all decisions to me. Initially I thought this was out of respect for my position as the new boss; but as I got to know them better it was clear they had never been asked to lead or to participate in the decision-making process. My new team was only familiar with top-down, command and control management. This was frustrating for me on a couple of levels: First, I was constantly getting dragged into front-line decision-making, and second, my team didn’t know how to lead without me.

Good decision-making and effective leadership doesn’t come naturally. It’s a mission-critical skill that needs development and encouragement. Two weeks into the job I sat down with my top managers and gave them this blunt feedback:

“There is a 100% chance that someday I won’t be here to lead this group”

Their puzzled looks told me this was new learning. I went on to explain that there is a 100% chance that someday I will either move on, get fired, or die on the job. When (not if!) one of those things happens, somebody (everybody) needs to be ready to lead.

A culture of top-down decision-making and one-person leadership carries tremendous liability for any organization.

  1. Future leaders don’t get developed and heard. Innovation from the shop-floor never converts to cumulative corporate wisdom and hence is never leveraged.
  2. Since the organization has no organic leadership development two more things happen: existing management stagnates and outsiders with decision-making skills are brought in. Lack of opportunity kills employee morale and organizational culture.
  3. The organization becomes vulnerable to unexpected change. “Life” (illness, accident, and attrition) can leave a thin leadership team highly exposed.
  4. Decision-making is rate limited by the availability of the principle decision maker. Slow decision-making is generally not a strategic asset.

Not only does one-person leadership set the organization up for future failure, it means that you, as the current leader, are shackled to your desk because nobody else can do the job. While this might sound like job security, it is certain that without a team of capable leaders supporting you, not only is your career dead, so is the career of everyone on your team.

This story has a happy ending, by the way. My team embraced the principle that every person can be a leader. Their confidence, influence, and impact are increasing every day, and our company and clients are benefitting from the change.

Train your team to take your place, build their confidence, and let them lead; you won’t be sorry.

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  1. April 30, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Obviously, good for those working under your direct influence. Overall organization environment seems another challenge.

  2. Syx344
    May 1, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    Great advice

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