Autonomy, failure, and “pushing down”; what I’m learning about leadership

That title is a lot to digest, but as part of my (ongoing and never ending) journey to master effective leadership, it would be irresponsible not to cover the topic of autonomy.

Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.

Daniel Pink, Drive

I’m still very much learning about the less obvious things good leaders do, and how to integrate those things into my own approach and management philosophy.

But here is one of those obvious things that didn’t take very long to learn: few things you in a leadership position will be more patronizing, more insulting, more humiliating than micromanagement.

Nothing says “I don’t trust you” quite as effectively as looking over someone’s shoulder (physically, or virtually) while they’re working on something.

But is it a necessary evil?

Trust and Patience

Imagine being truly great at a sport. Top of your game, physically able to achieve success, game after game.

Then slowly, as you age, you begin losing the power to impose your will with a ball. No longer able to run faster or jump higher, you’re forced to move on from playing professionally. At best, it’s now a hobby.

But then you get a call. A team wants to hire you to be a coach, to help pass on your knowledge and experience to the next generation of able bodied professionals, and hopefully achieve the same level of success in coaching as you did as a player.

Unfortunately, the reality is that very few great players ever become great coaches.

Why is that?

I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to know that in the not-so-distant past, you were so instinctively great at something, having the talent to make split-second decisions with a ball in your hand, seeing what needs to be done and having the ability to execute in real time, suddenly expected to watch from the sidelines, as a coach, during pivotal moments of the game.

To execute as a player takes talent and practice.

To execute as a coach takes trust and patience.

These are skills that you just don’t naturally develop as a player, but they’re essential as a coach.

Trust: to know that when your players leave the huddle, that they remember what you said, that they have the physical ability to make it happen, that they believe you can see what they can’t and will draw up a plan that puts them in a position to win. Oh, and they won’t allow momentary hubris to take over when it comes time to execute the plan.

Patience: to have a vision for what should be. To understand that no one wins 100% of the time. Having the discipline to see failure coming, letting it happen (when appropriate), coaching through the difficulties, and pushing your team to improve iteratively.

The best time to fail

I’ll admit that I have very little tolerance for my own failure. I figure if I think long enough about all the ways something can go wrong, I can mitigate them all. If I just ask enough questions, or do the most research, or have contingency plans for every scenario, nothing could possibly go wrong.

Not only is this an unreasonably heavy burden for a single person, it doesn’t even work!

Recommended Reading

Permission to Screw Up: How I Learned to Lead by Doing (Almost) Everything Wrong

Failure is inevitable.

So when is it appropriate to let your team fail?

How do we optimize our failure for growth?

Fail when the stakes are low.

If you play sports, it’s better to fail in practice, scrimmages, pre-season, and the regular season, than it is to fail in the last seconds of the championship game.

If you’re a carpenter, it’s better to fail when building a birdhouse than it is to fail building an actual house.

You don’t run a marathon without training.

You don’t attempt to free solo El Capitan without first trying it with all the necessary safety gear.

Failure is the best teacher

I still remember the single question I got wrong on my written driver’s test when I was 15 years old. I’ll never forget it. I have no idea what questions I got right, but the one question I missed is forever carved on the inside of my skull.

Better I get it wrong at a desk at the DMV than behind the wheel, right?

And that’s the point. I missed it in the safety of a classroom. The stakes were low. If I failed the test, I’d go back home, study some more, wait a couple of weeks, and try again.

If I missed it on the road, I could end up in the hospital (or worse).

“Pushing down”

My friend Katie (who doesn’t blog) asked a great question in a recent meeting we were in.

“Is it possible to push any of these decisions one level down?”

Katie Childress

She wasn’t suggesting we push every decision all the way down. We can’t ignore the reality that not everyone in every position has all the context needed to make the right call.

Her point was that we sometimes forget to even consider if it’s possible to allow a decision (case by case) to be made by your team, rather than you, or your boss, etc.

Are we asking the right questions? What are the risks? If they fail, if they get it wrong, what’s the worst that could happen?

It’s a lot easier to “push down” a decision when the stakes are low. If they fail, so what? We learn a lesson, we course correct, and we try again. Repeat.

As repeated failure teaches us what not to do, success becomes a more and more likely outcome.

This is how your team earns trust, and learns to trust themselves, for higher stakes situations.

This is how your team can fail productively.

Which brings us back to autonomy

Throwing your team into a high stakes situation, with no experience, and expecting them to know what to do, how and when to do it, and thinking they’ll succeed (under the guise of “autonomy”) could be devastating to both your business and to the team’s confidence.

Being a good coach is about preparing and equipping your team, in low stakes situations, to have the confidence and competence to succeed in the critical moments of their work.

Don’t waste the low stakes moments.

Put ego and fear aside.

Let them try, and sometimes fail.

Then watch with pride as they pop open the Champaign bottle, hoist the trophy, and celebrate a hard earned victory.