The Risk Every Leader Must Take

Last week’s blog told the story of how leaders can ignite exceptional engagement within their followers. This week’s blog continues in that vein by addressing the primary hurdles that keep leaders from creating that engagement even when they know what to do. We love to hear stories about the dramatic risks that leaders take. There’s the story of FedEx founder Frederick Smith playing blackjack with the company’s last $5,000 to keep it afloat. The world of athletics loves to debate the game-determining risks that coach’s take; such as the risk Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll took to throw the ball near the goal line in the waning moments of this past January’s Super Bowl. And then there are risk-filled stories of military and political choices such as former US President John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 or more recently with the risk taken by current US President Barack Obama to fly troops into Pakistan to go after Osama bin Laden in 2011.

While the drama of big risks creates interesting story lines, it actually represents a very small percentage of the risks leaders must take in order to lead well. The most important and frequent risk leaders at every organizational level must take in order to realize their potential is more personal than dramatic or strategic.

That risk is the risk of trusting others with their success.

The Three Culprits

We are all finite beings. We can only do and accomplish so much in and of ourselves. Even leaders who are immensely talented have only 24 hours a day in which to achieve their goals. Given that, it seems somewhat obvious that leaders must trust their followers enough to release some control in decision making and execution in order to get more done. Why then do some leaders struggle to let their followers make important decisions and execute critical plans? There are three primary culprits: ego, impatience, and fear.

Almost without exception, leaders are promoted to their current levels of responsibility due to their performance in their previous roles. Excellent sales people are promoted to become sales managers. Department managers who excel become divisional vice-presidents. High performing senior vice-presidents are promoted to become presidents and CEOs. It makes sense that the egos and impatience of leaders would tempt them to step in when they see others perform poorly in the roles they once held. “If you want a job done well, do it yourself,” is the siren’s song for leaders in such circumstances.

But just as Odysseus tied himself to the mast of his ship to resist steering it toward the island of the sirens, so too must skilled leaders consciously resist the temptation to step in and perform their former roles. Even if performance lags initially, leaders need to avoid feeding a cycle that will stroke their egos and calm their impatience while consuming the limited hours they have to fulfill the requirements of their current leadership roles.

But ego and impatience aren't the only tempters that limit the impact of leaders. Fear is also a major player.

What if… …the person I delegate to doesn’t lead the initiative well… …and I get questioned about it by my superiors… …and it reflects poorly on me… …and my future opportunities are limited? What if?

This two-word question is often a wonderful ally to the leader. But in this case, it is not the leader’s friend. If we as leaders are consumed by the potential negatives of trusting our followers with important tasks and decisions, we will find it very difficult to delegate and release control. Without delegation and the release of control, we become decision-making bottlenecks within our organizations.

Some might respond by saying, “But those I’m leading aren’t capable of doing what I need them to do. I simply can’t put important decisions and projects in their hands.” If that’s case, you have two options: either find new followers or develop the ones you have. (Notice that neither of these options involves holding on to decisions and control over the long haul.)

The Unavoidable Truth...And Opportunity

It is true that every delegated task, project, and plan reflects on the leader in one form or another. It's also true that the success (or lack thereof) of these projects, tasks, and plans determines, ultimately, the course of the leader’s career. But if leaders allow their egos, impatience, and fear to win out, they and their organizations ultimately lose. They will get less done and their subsequent impact and influence will suffer. If we want to maximize our impact as leaders, we simply must be willing to take the risk of trusting those we lead with our reputations and success.

Will you have bumps along the way for having done so? Almost certainly. But that is no reason to avoid it. Delegating to the best of our abilities and then leading through what happens next is in many ways the very definition of leadership. If we want to maximize our impact and the reach of our influence, we have no choice but to regularly take the risk of putting our success in the hands of those we lead.

Share Your Thoughts:  Have you or a leader you know overcome difficulty in trusting those you lead with important decision and projects? If so, how did you overcome it and what was the end result? We'd love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.Click here to receive free postings from Tim Spiker and The Aperio. As a thank you, you'll receive the first two chapters of The Only Leaders Worth Following: Why Some Leaders Succeed, Others Fail, and How the Quality of Our Lives Hangs in the Balance.