Letting go is one of the hardest parts of effective leadership — how can you set your team up for success?
DR. ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Center Director, CPET
We might think that the hardest part about becoming a leader is knowing the right thing to do, at the right time, and then doing it. In reality, the hardest part of becoming a leader is knowing the right thing to do at the right time, and then not doing it. Let me explain.
Leaders often find themselves in a position to manage others in an area where they’ve previously been successful. The problem is, when it comes to supervising others in doing a job we know how to do well, it’s often easier to continue to do the job ourselves than to watch others struggle through it. Face it — if we do it ourselves, it’ll get done faster, better, and everyone will see how skilled we are and they’ll learn in the process. Except...not really. In reality, it’s vice versa.
Letting go is one of the hardest parts of effective leadership
When we’re doing our jobs well, our work as leaders is to coach and supervise the tasks and responsibilities of others — and that role should take more of our time than anything else. If we’re spending the bulk of our time doing the tasks ourselves, we aren’t leading, we’re doing. The true task of a leader — as a teacher, an administrator, or even a superintendent — is to lead from the ground up, nurturing those around us to take root, grow tall, and bloom.
But this process is easier said than done. In reality, even when we establish a process for delegating tasks, distributing roles, and differentiating responsibilities, it’s easy to spend all day, every day putting out fires, stopping fights, and feeling frustrated. This is because in ground-up leadership, we have to train and coach others to know how to do the right thing at the right time, even when we aren’t around. This is when leadership feels like a vice, when the weight of our leadership role feels like it has such a tight grip on us that it makes it hard to move or even breathe. When we feel the vice, we need the VERSA.
VERSA is a process for leadership that includes five principles of leadership that will help us to transform our teams from the ground up, allowing us to step back while others step forward.
V is for Vision
Effective leaders set a clear vision to help their teams see what matters most.
The first step for working with any team is to set a clear vision for the work they’re doing. It’s our responsibility as leaders to find the big picture vision for the task at hand, and help each person on our team to take on that vision as their own. This means they need to see value in the vision, see the role they play in reaching toward the vision, and see the vision as it fits into their own purpose in the work.
To set a vision, leaders must ask themselves: What is our goal?
We must remember where we want to go.
E is for Expectations
Effective leaders clearly communicate their vision and establish shared, explicit expectations — even when they seem like common sense.
All conflicts are the result of missed expectations, whether known or unknown. We all have expectations of ourselves and of one another — when those expectations are not clearly defined, are not stated explicitly, or are not agreed to, we’re bound to have accidental missed expectations. We’re also bound to have purposeful missed expectations, where someone wants to leave early or doesn’t meet a deadline. Without clearly stated and agreed to expectations, it can be challenging to realistically hold people accountable for their mistakes.
To establish expectations, leaders must ask: Do we agree on what needs to be done?
We must remember to say what we want to see.
R is for Responsibility
Effective leaders identify who, what, when, where, and why.
If it’s everyone’s job, it’s no one’s job. The idea of shared tasks and shared responsibility is great on paper, but in the real world, when the components of the task are ambiguous or the process is mysterious, we often create more problems than we solve.
Responsibility entails the strategic and purposeful passing of the baton from one person to the next, for a defined period of time. We can think about it like a relay race. If everyone runs all at once, the team is doomed to fail. If no one runs a particular leg, everyone loses. Most work in teams requires thoughtful distribution of tasks, even if they can be completed by multiple people on the team.
To establish responsibility, leaders must ask: Who will do what, and by when?
We must remember to monitor the baton pass between team members on our project.
S is for Support (and praise)
Effective leaders provide opportunities for professional growth and strategically match people with tasks linked to their gifts and talents as often as possible. They praise with purpose.
In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown challenges leaders to imagine that each of their team members is actually doing the best they can, without reservation. The question she leaves us with is, if that’s true (which she is very confident that it is) what does it mean about how we support them in the work? How do we determine that our team has all the skills they need to meet the demands of the task? How can we anticipate their professional learning needs, as well as create a culture where people feel comfortable coming to the front to say where they need help?
If we are truly motivated by our goal, we’ll take the time and put in the effort to provide support and praise to our team members, offering feedback on what has been done well and where growth is required to meet the goal.
To provide support, leaders must ask themselves: Do we have the skills to meet the expectations?
We must remember that common sense isn’t always common, it’s often learned through culture and prior knowledge.
A is for Accountability
Effective leaders follow up on met and unmet expectations.
In direct conversations, we can identify the obstacles to meeting expectations, collaborate on action plans for next steps, and when necessary, establish proportional consequences.
Part of the challenge is that many leaders grew up in the light of the epic quote, “if you build it, they will come.” I know that I spent a lot of time believing that if I just set a clear vision, hired the right people, and created clear structures, I wouldn’t ever have to have those hard conversations, or correct someone on the team, and of course, I’d never need to fire anyone.
But accountability is just as important as every other part of the process. It’s what raises the stakes, creates a fair working environment, and reinforces the values of the organization. Without accountability, anything goes...and when anything goes, everything goes.
To hold our team members accountable for their contributions, we ask: What feedback or action steps will translate into met-expectations?
We can remember that accountability doesn’t equal punishment, but it is a call to account — to explain what happened, why it happened, and how we can make a change in the future.
VERSA is a process for leadership that allows us to lead from the ground up — stepping back in order to move forward — and authentically move our teams towards knowing the right thing to do at the right time.
When our teams take center stage in these ways, it’s a huge win. It means as leaders, we can begin to set our sights on the future, knowing that day-to-day, our team is leading the way.