I recall when I first started out as an officer in the military, it took time and me making mistakes to figure out a healthy balance between flexibility and discipline.
During one of my first training exercises, I sat back and gave up some of my autonomy, trusting my subordinate leaders to get the job done without my clear direction. When that mission failed, I had no one to blame but myself in not exercising leadership where it was needed.
In those early days of my development, I also saw that when I went too far in the direction of control/discipline – trying to manage all of the details or control outcomes, especially in a fast moving environment – this also failed me. I could not keep up with all of the changes and did not allow my teams to exercise the autonomy they needed to get the job done.
After learning these lessons the hard way, I came to realize that effective leaders are crystal clear about what needs to get done and why. This is what drives alignment. Leaders who step forward and clearly articulate desired outcomes are able to proactively keep their teams focused on the most essential tasks at hand. Clear direction and mutual communication to ensure this level of clarity are vital when it comes to task and purpose.Clear direction on the “what and why” helps create the space for “how” teams execute their tasks in a flexible manner. Managers support their teams with the resources and authority to get their tasks accomplished without impinging on how they get it done, thus balancing alignment with autonomy.
Inefficient and ineffective leaders are less clear about essential outcomes and get too involved in how tasks are being accomplished. As a result, they waste time constantly seeking more information, imposing more controls or insisting on more details regarding a plan or operation.
This approach limits a competent team’s freedom to get things done, as well as its creativity. It is not only inefficient, it is demoralizing.
If the leader is too much in the weeds, he or she may not be on the lookout for emerging threats or opportunities and, importantly, clearing the path for his or her teams to move forward quickly.