The fine balance of a leader

What is the fine balance of leadership?

This question came up a few times in the last week from clients and friends who hold senior leadership roles in top organizations.

It’s a great question that is worth answering indeed.

In leading teams, we often find ourselves in a position where we don’t know whether is better to give more support and attention to their needs or step back and let them find their solutions.

This is a fine balance that great leaders can find.

Before sharing my thoughts on how to find it, let’s see what are the consequences of not finding the right balance.

Too much support

In this scenario, leaders tend to spend a lot of time with their teams, giving directions, telling what to do, helping them 24/7, and sometimes controlling their work.

It’s a bit paternal approach.

But here’s the problem. Employees may believe that your approach is hurting them.

They may feel that you want to micromanage them, by telling them what to do, and what steps they need to take. Some leaders don’t want to do that but that’s the impression they give.

Another issue is that your people feel that you don’t trust them because they want more freedom and autonomy but you step on their toes all the time. They may also feel needy because, without you, they can’t take any decisions.

Another potential complication – which is the most dangerous in my opinion – is that they never grow. They don’t develop strategic thinking, because they rely on you for that. This creates lazy thinking.

Finally, some leaders deliberately want to feel essential to their team. They want to be irreplaceable, also in the eyes of their leaders. This approach is not healthy and suffocates the entire team.

All of this goes against empowerment.

Too distant

In this other scenario, leaders don’t give enough support to their people.

They’re distant, they don’t give their undivided attention or much direction. In other words, they are there but not much for their people.

As a result, people start feeling lost and disconnected. You can imagine the feeling of being lost in an organization, especially when you have big problems or challenges to face.

When people feel that way, they lose motivation along the way. They start thinking about whether they’ll ever succeed. They start questioning their career and their future in the organization. Engagement goes down.

Another negative consequence of this situation is performance. When leaders disappear, people do things in their own way, which is very understandable. When leaders finally review their work, they start complaining and arguing about the outcome. They had – just in their mind though – different expectations. I’ve seen too many nasty conversations that ended up that way.

Finally, being so distant leads to chaotic delegation where leaders delegate not for empowering people, but because they don’t want to be involved. As a result, people have no clue what needs to be done.

How to find the right balance

When you find balance, everything changes.

The key is to learn how “dance in the moment”. This means understanding when is the right time to step in and step out. But you have to stay there, you have to be close to the line and not position yourself at the extremes.

How can you do it? Let me give you some practical steps:

  1. Give your people a challenging goal or task. Something that is going to challenge them. As a rule of thumb, the challenge level has to be 20-25% higher than their current skill level. Even better, give them a challenge that is going to make a huge impact on company performance. Why this? Because this is how people learn and get empowered.

  2. Clarify your expectations. Not just as outcomes but also in terms of communication. How will you discuss progress? Are there any reports to produce? What will be the ‘rules of the game’ between you and the individual/team? When will you meet? How? What kind of support will you give them and they’ll expect? These questions are critical to making sure the relationship between you and others works perfectly for both parties.

  3. Give them the tools they need to start, but nothing more. So let them explore other options as they go along with their tasks. If you give too much – all the tools, information, process, clues, etc. – there’s no empowerment. They need to figure out how to solve problems as long as of course you put in the place steps 1 and 2.

  4. Coach them and do not give them directions when you meet them. As really good coaches do. For example, resist telling them where to go, instead ask them questions like: “How can I help you to get….?” or “What are your options?” or “What can make a bigger impact on..?” These questions will massively help them to clarify their work, develop strategic thinking, find different solutions, and generate breakthroughs.

  5. Keep monitoring progress and have frequent touchpoints. So make sure you don’t have just one conversation. Do it weekly at least.

  6. End the process with self-reflection. Both at the individual and team levels. The goal is to help the team to reflect deeply on their work, their results, and what changed, what worked, and what didn’t. It’s also an opportunity for you to understand if you are empowered or if they needed more time. Or, if they expected something different from you in terms of involvement. These questions help people to build their self-awareness as well which is a critical factor of good leadership.

These simple steps will help you to find the right balance. They won’t take more time from you. On the contrary, they’ll make your time with people more valuable.

Listen to the podcast related to this article:
Subscribe to the Newsletter


Insider strategies in your inbox every Thursday