Enable Others to Act: The Dilemma

The Dilemma

Charles St. John

In The Leadership Challenge Workshop Participant's Workbook 3rd Edition Revised (now out of print), Jim and Barry said:
  • "Leaders nurture self-esteem in others and make them feel strong and capable."
  • "Leaders strengthen and develop their constituents by sharing power and information, and by giving others visibility and credit. As coaches and teachers, they give constituents challenging tasks and support them with the tools they need to be successful."

I'd like to share a story about a dilemma one manager faced that beautifully illustrates these thoughts. And while this article focuses primarily on "enabling others to act" it also touches on all of The Five Practices.

Several years ago I conducted a university-sponsored, high-level leadership program that occurred in three, intense, residential weeks spread over a four month period. High-level managers from organizations around the world attended with the intent of being challenged and having their leadership skills ratcheted up several notches. In order to promote full participation, we required participants to clear their calendars while they were in residence. This requirement also served as a small test of their willingness to delegate—could their shop run effectively for a week without their constant attention.


One of these managers was a woman named Sue from a large public utility. In getting to know her in the first residential week, she told us that one of her many responsibilities was to present a quarterly business status report to the CEO and senior management team. She had done several of these presentations and had received kudos from the top executives on what a great job she did. We also learned that one of these meetings was scheduled for the week following the program's second residential week - approximately two months later.


Upon return to her job after the first week of the workshop the CEO informed Sue that the quarterly meeting had to be rescheduled which meant the new date fell on the Thursday of her second residential week. Sue had a dilemma. She now had conflicting commitments - to be in the leadership program or to present the quarterly report. In the real world of course the CEO wins such a "yes - no" conflict. But Sue paused a moment and considered whether there was a "yes - and" possibility here.


She chose a creative and potentially risky way to honor both of her commitments. She decided to delegate the quarterly report presentation to two of the top people on her team. And she did a great job of setting them up to succeed.


When Sue asked them to take on the presentation task they blanched and said, "But Sue you are great at this and…it's the top brass…are you sure about this?" Sue replied, "Yes, I know you can do it. You have seen me do the presentation so you know what happens and you know the content as well as I do. You'll do great. But I don't want you to just present the information, I also want you to prepare the material you will present - and I'll help you." Sue could feel their apprehension but she knew they were ready for this next big step.


Over the next few weeks Sue coached and supported them, but made sure the responsibility for the presentation stayed in their hands knowing that ultimately she would be still accountable for the outcomes.


When Sue returned for her second residential week she told us of her dilemma and what she chose to do about it. On Thursday we paused the workshop and said to Sue, "We have to know what happened. Go call and find out how it went." Sue returned with a glowing report. The presentation had gone well and the senior staff was pleased. The two presenters felt as though they had won Olympic gold. The CEO had left a voice mail for Sue acknowledging her for her courage to delegate the task and for setting her people up to succeed so well. By enabling her people in this way Sue had created wins all around.


But there was another, possibly bigger, win in this experience for Sue. She said that had she not been faced with this challenge she never would have delegated the presentation task - she saw it as part of her "special stuff that only I can do." Now Sue was challenging herself on all of her tasks to see what else she could delegate. With her new perspective she found several other "plums" that she could hand off. There were several positive results - a boost in morale on the team, people feeling good about new challenges, and opportunities for team members to get exposure in new ways. The result for Sue was that she was able to free up precious time to work on some higher-level strategic ideas that she had. Two months later Sue received a promotion. She was told that one reason why she was promoted was how well she had developed her team and created effective backups.


What do you have on your plate—right now—that would enable someone else?


Charles St. John is an internationally experienced management coach and consultant on leadership and organizational effectiveness. His firm The Results Group, Inc. is based in Denver.



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