I am coming through a very uncomfortable stage in my leadership development. But it has been worth it.
For nearly two decades I have been leading the Back In Motion Health Group. As founders, my wife and I did EVERYTHING at the beginning. We decided the practice locations, recruited the staff, wrote the brochures, decided the pricing, chose the colour scheme, and bought the biscuits in the tea room. It was safe. I had complete control.
Slowly over time, however, our team grew to a footprint of over 100 locations in Australia and NZ. Little by little, I have had to concede control and influence over a range of decisions that affects our business as I trust the team to act in our best interests.
Today, we have very capable colleagues around us who make MOST of the operational decisions.
But don’t let me pretend this was easy…or quick. One of the challenges on this journey has been learning which decisions to delegate, and which ones to hold onto. And of course, this has been an iterative process. Sometimes I chose well, and many times I got this wrong.
Recently, a well-intentioned colleague challenged my approach to business. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t making all of the decisions. Their expectation of effective leadership was to be across every detail, curate every opinion, and then make every decision. It proved to be a stark contrast to my understanding of leadership.
I believe great leaders should make as few decisions as possible (but as many as necessary).
I have learnt my greatest contribution to team members in this stage of our organisation, is not giving detailed answers, instructions, and opinions to their incessant questions about ‘what to do’…but rather to learn the art of asking insightful questions. A trait I call “questioneering”.
Based on research interviews with over 200 of the world’s most innovative leaders in business, technology, government, and social enterprises, Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, found that great questions have a catalytic quality — that is, they dissolve barriers to creative thinking and channel the pursuit of solutions into new, accelerated pathways. Often, the moment they are voiced, they have the paradoxical effect of being utterly surprising yet instantly obvious.
To affirm with colleagues that the problem they are facing is high stakes, and to help them process the options, then allows me to invite them to ‘make the best decision available to them’.
Lots of people who work with me don’t like this. At least, not at first. But it has grown on them.
Initially, they would prefer me to just fix the problem or make the decision myself. Why? Because they lack the confidence or prefer not to carry the responsibility. But the truth is, the greater one’s organisational authority, the less their organisational IQ. Pixar/Disney’s Ed Catmull, who is praised by some as one of the most innovative questioners in business today, notes that isolation at the top of an organisation leads to a “dangerous disconnect” from reality. The more portfolios and channels of our business I had to be across, meant the less I could possibly learn about the detail within them. So why would I impose my decisions on crucial matters such as IT, legal contracts, staff performance, clinical protocols, or local practice performance, when I’m the furthest from the coalface and the least-informed?
My job was not to have all the answers. My job slowly evolved to become about making sure that those who do know the detail are aligned to our mission and core values, have considered all of the options, and are empowered to exercise their best judgement.
So, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, my leadership capital grows and the future of our business enlarges, the more I let others within our team make more considered decisions. Accordingly, I must make less. It’s simple mathematics.
So, my new measure of success as a leader in this season, is just how few matters I have to unilaterally decide.
Here is a link to my published article in The Australian.