A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves – Sun Tsu
Leaders often think that their leadership legacy will be the areas that they touch in an employee’s life: goals set, advice given, directions, training given and problem solving. However often the greatest mark a leader makes is where they leave room for an employee to show what they can do.
The Leadership Stencil
Think of your greatest career achievement. It is highly unlikely to be where you met an externally determined goal in the way specified by your manager. Career achievements are often where you show yourself potential that you weren’t even sure you had going in, where you grew in the process of the work and where you went beyond what everyone else expects.
Like a stencil, leaders need to provide the surrounds for employees to fill in the colour and build the picture of what they can do. Leaving empty space for employees to explore, to make choices, to grow and to develop is what great leaders do to engage and inspire their employees.
Lots of discussion of engagement forgets that engagement is about leveraging employee’s discretionary efforts and untapped potential. If employee’s lives are entirely specified, directed and inspected by their manager there’s no room for discretion and no value in extra effort. Engagement withers from disuse.
The key here is that like a stencil leaders make choices as to where they leave space and where they provide support. The goal is to guide employees to produce the right success on their own terms, not to abandon them to their fates.
The degrees of freedom in the white space are how employees work out what is possible for their own contributions.