Enabling Success or Something Else?

I’ll never forget a particular time that I was served some humble pie and a reality check by two of my employees. They basically called me out on a major gap I had as a leader, that I wasn’t truly aware of: my ability to delegate {or lack thereof}.  Both of these employee’s — I’ll call them Lacy and Ray – had garnered my absolute respect {and still have it} – so their feedback was especially powerful. Lacy said to me, “You’re one of the busiest leaders I know, I have not seen anyone in your similar position that works as much or as hard as you do.” In an indirect way, and almost complimentary sounding, I don’t even think it was her intent to bring a weakness to my attention, but it did. Within days a part, Ray, not so subtly, had just come out and said it. He approached me after a hectic morning of fires and unexpected problems that had fallen on my plate to solve and said, “Everything ok? What can I do to help you?” With my usual quick response and without thinking twice I replied, “I wish there was something you could help with, but I’m good,” which he rapidly debated and said “No you’re not. You’re doing too much, and you’re busy with the wrong things!” That stopped me in my tracks. There was a voice in my head that wanted to shout, “What do you mean the wrong things?!?! A lot of what I’m doing is for the success of others, including yourself.. and isn’t that why I’m here?!?” I kept it to myself, still looking at him bright-eyed and still speechless as he elaborated, “You need to lean on us more… delegate!” My heart immediately sunk into my stomach because I knew he was right. In many ways, I did know this to be true for quiet sometime, but I really didn’t want to own it. Remember when I said I don’t always demonstrate my ‘own it’ philosophy? Well, this was one of those times. It was time for me to own it, so I could do something about it.

For the next several days I began to do some self-observation. I needed to determine why delegation had been a challenge for me, and what the root cause really was and how it began, in order to overcome it. This meant asking myself some tough questions.

  1. Was it that I didn’t trust my team ability to get things done?
  2. Was it because I was actually a control freak and my ways were the only right ways?
  3. Perhaps it was that I hadn’t invested the time in my team members to develop whatever it was I was doing for them? Ultimately continuing to do it because to coach them to do it would just take longer.
  4. Or maybe I had become what I always feared… gasp… had I become a micro-manager?

Initially, I thought my problem was mainly number 3 and I hadn’t really made an effort to invest the time; even knowing I’d get it back tenfold once I had. I gave myself a several opportunities to see if working on this corrected the issue, but it didn’t. A couple of weeks later, someone made a suggestion on a book: Permission to Screw Up by Kristen Hadeed. I didn’t know if it would give me the answers I was looking for, but I downloaded the audio version the same day and began listening. As I listened to the first two chapters, it was almost as if Kristen was inside my head! I finished listening to the book in 3 days. Although our situations were completely different, I quickly related to the challenges, and discovery through her stories. I highly recommend that anyone and everyone read this book — there are many lessons to learn from it and many different angles.

There is a specific story early on in this book {that I won’t spoil} and it hit me like a ton of bricks. As I read it and thought about my own challenges, and a light bulb went off… “I’VE GOT IT!” It wasn’t that I didn’t trust my team’s ability, or that I was trying to control things – and thank goodness, I hadn’t actually become an unaware micro-manager! The story forced me to see a different perspective of what I had become: an enabler, a do-er, a save-the-day leader. My behavior was driven by the desire to want to protect my people from screwing up and fearful of putting them in a vulnerable position. It wasn’t because subconsciously I thought they would actually screw up, or because I was afraid of how they would make me look – I mean, they are all rock stars, let’s be honest, that’s why I hired them! So then, where in the heck did this come from? I started to look back to figure out when this habit had creeped up on me; and to my surprise came to realize it was well before I managed people directly, but had significantly gotten worse. I believe it was initially established as a defense mechanism during a time when I had worked for a couple of people who sometimes demonstrated what I would call, extreme and counterproductive criticism. In certain situations, they would chastise and blast folks, both privately and publicly.   They were still great leaders, but like all of us do – they had developed a bad habit. Combine this defense mechanism with a passion for problem solving passion and there I was! The root cause of a behavior is not only important to understand so you can fix it, but so you can be cognizant of environments that may have influence over you, even subconsciously.

Have you ever heard the expression, “holding the crap umbrella”? That was my intent, to hold the umbrella and shield people from ‘crap’ such as criticism. I relished in what I believed to be “enabling the success of others” – but the impact was just the opposite! There is a fine line between an enabling and empowering – a valuable lesson I learned along the way, by screwing it up myself. Here’s a breakdown on the difference at a highlevel:

 empower vs enable2

The balance between enabling and empowering can be difficult, I’ll elaborate on that later. My behavior was reflecting the right-hand side of this illustration almost all the time – I had not only become extremely busy with the wrong things, but I was robbing them of their opportunity! Opportunity to learn lessons and grow from their mistakes, to develop new capabilities, and to shine and be recognized for their successes! Worst of all, I could see my actions were creating poor habits in their behaviors – enabling them to come to me as their fixer, relying on me to swoop in and also having an impact on their own self-confidence! Wowza.

There was no better time like the then present, and this wasn’t going to fix itself. Now that I was aware, I could be accountable, and I was ready to take action. I started by disclosing my discovery individually with my team and thanking those that had called me out on it. It is extremely important that as a leader, when you are working to improve in an area that you are transparent and honest about it!! Does this mean you have to humble yourself and show vulnerability by highlighting a shortcoming? ABSOLUTELY. If you have to change a behavior or habit, the last thing you want people to do is draw their own conclusion that it’s something they’ve done by misinterpreting the change. Especially if it’s a transformation that requires you to let go of the reigns more, which could be confused as something else, like disengagement.  They cannot read your mind, so never ever assume they know the reason – just tell them! They will appreciate your honesty and ownership and can even help hold you accountable towards your goals.

The last point in this story is so extremely important, and a good sneak-peek on what I will expand on next:

  • 5 steps to help you delegate through empowerment
  • Swooping in – when to enable and when to empower
  • What success looks like

In the meantime, do some reflecting and be honest with yourself. What would your coworkers or employees say about your ability to delegate? Are you delegating the right things? Are you intending to enable success but the impact is something else? Perhaps you think none of this applies to you because you don’t directly manage people?


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