Trusting your team to ride unbridled can produce real results

Learning how to unleash leadership


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“People don’t need to be managed; they need to be unleashed.” – Richard Florida, as quoted in “Quiet Leadership” by David Rock.

This quote turns our expectation of “management” on its head. Who likes to be managed really? Who doesn’t love to be unleashed – and by implication, trusted? This is the difference between someone telling us what to do and our deciding for ourselves what we will do. Unbridled, we think for ourselves.

Many leaders in new positions or in growing organizations have come to us countless times with this very issue in management of their staff. Lest you think unleashing is somehow irresponsible, unleashing does not mean unconscious action or ignoring our impact on others. Rather, unleashing means asking good questions, listening thoroughly to what’s being said and not said, and asking for accountability – but the difference is that it’s the direct reports that come up with the answers.

Providing external solutions is only useful for a short-term, or as a foundation. The real learning and change happens when we look internally. In other words, instead of the solution being “out there,” the solution is “in here.”

This is the moment we unleash ourselves – and our teams – to find answers and do right by the organization.

One of my clients – we’ll call him Mark – struggled with how to motivate his team to reach the kinds of success he was experiencing. He tried telling them, “Here’s how I do it.” He got short-term results. No buy-in. Increased frustration was experienced by everyone, including him.

We spoke about different kinds of questions he could ask of his reports. Here is what he tried out:

He began by asking them why they got out of bed in the morning (to make money was not the whole answer!), what were their favorite parts of work, what they thought their individual mission or vision of work might be, what annual results they hoped to achieve and what processes they had in place to reach them.

Many folks, if not all, had never been asked those kinds of questions. Many didn’t know how to answer. What happened?

They dealt with not knowing the answer. They found new answers. Mark then asked them how they would evaluate themselves. He asked about what could be done differently. He asked tough questions. Fundamentally, Mark gave the responsibility for their success back to them.

Team builder

The result? The team rose to the occasion. The district grew exponentially. Other managers asked him what he was doing with his team. His team members spoke of his leadership and their immense loyalty to him.

Here is what he also learned:

 • He, as leader, had to unleash himself first. He had to learn to trust himself and his decision-making abilities. He developed his own metrics that meant something to him and held himself accountable. Where he made mistakes, he learned and gained confidence. Until he did this, he could not do it with his team.

 • He discovered what his direct reports were made of. Not everyone stayed on my client’s team. He discovered some were not invested in the company. Those who remained shared similar values and had the long view on the company.

 • He positively impacted his organization’s whole system. His company grew organically because he asked questions and listened. He inspired innovation. He found loyalty. He trusted his people to do their best. He opened the door for real conversations – about what was working, and what wasn’t.

Nothing is more exciting than someone owning their leadership. It is natural, authentic, attractive and it builds the team exponentially. And it doesn’t come through micromanaging. It comes from trusting ourselves and our team to ride unbridled.

Trinnie Houghton, a partner and executive and organizational coach with Sojourn Partners, an executive leadership strategy and coaching firm in Bedford, can be reached at trinnie@sojournpartners.com.

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