February 24, 2018

Much easier to shut down initiative than get it going

Group of colleagues

I think we underestimate this asymmetry.

The taking of initiative by team members can be a fragile thing. It’s much, much easier to shut it down than get it going in the first place. The truth is we really don’t need to worry that we can stop something if we need to do. That’s all too easy. The difficult part is switching people on in the first place. We need to nurture that.

It’s so easy to fall in to the trap of thinking we should be in control of what happens at all times. That may seem to be what’s expected of us, or so we think anyway. But that sucks the energy out of any initiative. The effort becomes just our energy then—ours alone. That’s a lot less than the energy of the group.

Instead, we need the art of the light touch and the continuance of trust.

Unless, that is, we believe a heroic, solo effort from ourselves is the right way—that we’ll somehow be stronger than a whole organisation full of people.

Most of the time, we won’t be.

It’s not so comfortable to allow something to happen and not be in full control, but for others to take and sustain initiative that’s the path we need to follow.

Controlling everything isn’t leadership

Group in discussion at computerIt’s management.

They say the best leaders are the ones who develop the most leaders, not the most followers.

If we want to lead—as opposed to manage—we mustn’t control everything, because then there’s no opportunity for others to exercise their initiative and grow into leaders themselves.

Of course, there need to be checks and balances to pick up mistakes; to keep everything and everybody safe.

And the right relationship to make all this possible—trust.

How do you strike the right balance between freedom and control?

If you’re trying to nail down everything, you probably aren’t leading.

Total control—total paralysis?

Female hand signing a formWe’re addicted to control—control of our businesses, our public services, and our non-profits and charities. It seems so logical: The tighter we can nail down what happens in our organisations, the more efficient and reliable and predictable they will be.

That could be true, assuming people can actually work in such a regime. (In fact, they can’t, but that’s another story.)

The other trouble is…

Control everything and it becomes impossible for anybody to innovate. Nobody can take any kind of speculative risk. They can’t act on a hunch. It’s just too difficult.

A remarkable number of people I know holding really quite senior positions have no discretion to spend even a few hundred pounds, in some cases, not even a few pounds (or dollars or euros).

So their bosses must think they have a monopoly on innovative ideas. Well, I’m sorry, but that’s just not credible.


Total control means, if not total, at least partial paralysis.

In a fast-changing world, that’s really not smart.

Paralysis means stagnation, and stagnation means getting out of date.


We need control, yes. We need a little chaos too.