How to be a great leader? Don't make decisions for others
Most people who think they are leading are only managing
Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, is famous for having up to 70 meetings, and receiving 3,500 to 4,000 emails, each week. She has joked about having people in line outside her office and needing a "take-a-number" machine to manage the traffic.
This is not leadership, it's management, two very different things. Managers solve and decide; leaders train others to solve and decide, and then get out of the way. As with most control freaks, Mayer is probably learning, as I did, that her future effectiveness will be directly related to her ability to leave command and control behind, so everyone around her can start making the decisions they will have to carry out.
Leaders who figure out they shouldn't make decisions can lead wildly successful companies devoid of command-and-control management. Here are just three of many who have done it over the past 60 years.
Bill Gore was so far ahead of his time in 1958 that he was ignored. He built W. L. Gore, Inc., with no managers–nobody worked for anybody. Leaders were chosen because people naturally followed them. Even today's CEO, Terri Kelly, was chosen after a survey revealed she was the most respected leader at Gore. She wasn't on the radar until then.
Today, W. L. Gore is a $3 billion company with 10,000 employees. At Gore and other successfully led companies, leaders exist to ask questions, not make decisions, and to serve, champion, guide, train, and then get out of the way.
With almost 60 years behind it, W. L. Gore has been a great example of how leadership builds a great company, where command-and-control management would have failed to do so. With no bosses anywhere in the company, Gore has made every Top 100 Best Places to Work list every year since the inception of such lists.
In 1981, at the age of 21, Ricardo Semler replaced his father at Semco, a tiny manufacturing company. His first action was to fire the managers. He rebuilt the company à la Bill Gore–no managers, no bosses, just a few natural leaders who attract followers without any ability to control or fire them.
Ricardo Semler celebrated his 10th anniversary of not making a decision many years ago. All decisions are made by the self-managed teams who have to carry them out. He is the majority owner and leads by asking questions, creating vision, guiding, training, championing others, but mostly by getting out of the way.
Devoid of managers who solve and decide for others, Semco has grown to more than $1 billion a year in revenue and multiples of that in assets, with employee retention at an unheard of 98 percent. Everybody has a brain at Semco, not just special people. In his book, Maverick, Semler tells how he built a company where he doesn't make decisions.
The New Leader
Nearly 60 years after Gore and 34 years after Semler, Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and present CEO of Square, has the same approach. He believes it's an organizational failure if he has to make a decision. He says his role is to see that decisions are being made, not to make them:
"If I have to make a decision, we have an organizational failure. I can help provide context of what's happening in the industry. But I definitely see the organization and the people in it as the ones to make the decisions, because they have the greatest context for what needs to be done."
Leading Versus Managing
These guys represent three generations of great leadership. They aren't freaks but part of a fast-growing trend in the Participation Age toward leadership and away from management. There are countless great leaders who have learned the basic principle that training others to make decisions allows the leaders to truly lead. They have all learned the simple axiom of leadership that my company uses to advise CEOs:
The art of leadership is to know how few decisions the leader needs to make.
Give People Their Brains Back
Ownership is the most powerful motivator in business, and the ability to make decisions is at the core of ownership. Stop solving and deciding for others. They are adults. They can do it themselves, and better than you could. Instead, ask questions, train others to make great decisions, and then get out of the way and let them do it. You, your company, and everyone who works there will all be better off if you do.
Give people their brains back. Stop managing (making decisions). Start leading, and get out of the way.