Letting go of responsibilities and sharing authority at work are the new tactics of leadership

Leadership is changing. Traditional leadership roles, jobs, skills, ways of doing things and expectations no longer count. Companies are discovering that the command-and-control methods of the last century are extremely inefficient in the fast-changing world. Now, to attract and retain employees, work environment must now focus on inspiring and exploiting their capabilities in a much more open manner, compared to the earlier closed-leadership model centred on the capabilities of a single leader.
The command-and-control style propagated an unempowered environment, positioning the leader above and separate from the work group. The leader was the sole authority for decision making, while the group members followed orders with no specific authority or responsibility. This worked well in a factory kind of environment, where more importance was on control. However, in the new age of technology, this resulted in lack of innovation, creativity and accountability.

Companies slowly started leaning towards leaders who saw themselves more as partners, supporters and facilitators. This helped the group members take decisions along with the top management about how to do their jobs. They also assumed many of the responsibilities formerly held by the leadership. The companies that adopted this open style are performing better than their rivals on employee retention and morale, and other factors like innovation, profitability and market leadership.

Southwest Airlines in the US is an excellent example of open style of leadership. The airline thrives on holistic understanding, building of a shared vision, effective self-management, encouraging interdependence and creativity, questioning assumptions, promoting shared trust and embracing humility from all leadership levels. Management consultants Ann McGee-Cooper and Gary Looper in their book, The Essentials of Servant-Leadership: Principles in Practice, say Southwest encourages its leaders to lift their group members to new levels of possibility to accomplish as a team much more than what one leader might accomplish alone. The company has been highly profitable for several years and was named the 3rd Most Admired Company in America by Fortune in 2006.

How can leaders embrace such an open style of leadership?

Empower to challenge and develop people: Leaders who embrace an open style of leadership cultivate a habit of letting go of responsibilities, which other members can take on. Leaders do this to encourage others to take decisions at work. They involve others in their work and provide a clear understanding of their responsibility, amount of authority, expectations and constraints.

Mentor and coach to ensure success: In an open system, leaders practice techniques for supporting others, such as coaching, reinforcing, preparing for resistance and gaining others’ commitment. They not only coach group members about the tasks to be performed, but also help in discovering their hidden potential. They provide honest, thoughtful feedback and set expectations for meaningful and continuous performance improvement. These leaders also work ahead to ensure that coaching does not stop with initial training, but is institutionalised as a regular part of their jobs.

Encourage risk taking: While promoting an open system, leaders actively seek ideas and suggestions from their group members. They empower people to implement their ideas — especially those that involve some risk. At the same time, they resist temptation to take over the responsibility completely when things are going wrong or not getting immediate expected results. Leaders make sure that they are patient with the empowerment process, such that it allows group members to learn from their mistakes. They also support their people through the rough spots of a new assignment, instead of punishing them for mistakes or taking over.

on Leadership: Sangeeth varghese,The author is a leadership scholar from the LSE and founder of LeadCap. His book, Decide to Lead: Eight Decisions That Can Make You A Leader, will soon be published by Businessworld. He can be contacted at sangeethv@leadcap.org