Get ready to cede control if you want employees to take on more leadership

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

It must be very complex — leadership, that is.

It must be, or why would Amazon currently carry nearly 382,000 titles containing the word leadership? A quick Google query on the word “leadership” gives a response of more than 143,000,000 entries.

I smell a rat and I have for several years now. Maybe we should be looking at the conditions that allow leadership to emerge. Maybe leadership is naturally occurring, and we hold it back, either consciously or unconsciously, in our organizations.

I have heard more than one senior leader say he or she was interested in seeing more leadership from the people in their organization.

“Are you sure that’s what you want?” I’ll typically ask.

A provocative question like that better have a good follow up. If I am on my game, this exchange can have the desired effect of creating a teachable moment — or at least one where I have an opportunity to think I am offering something of value.

Charging into the awkward silence, I might say, “I bet you have been taking responsibility for all of the critical decisions — and thus the critical thinking behind them. Your people feel alienated, with no sense of ownership, and you wonder why you can’t get them more engaged.” This exchange often has led to a visible shrug of recognition and the sheepish question from the potential client, “It sounds like you are saying I am the problem?”

Now the teachable moment presents itself.

My response is this:

“First, you are not the problem, but you are certainly part of the problem and if you are willing to at least be part of the solution we can make some progress.”

It is occasions like these that are also moments of truth for those of us who fancy ourselves organizational catalysts. The conversations that follow are going to determine whether this potential client becomes a client or I walk out the door hat in hand.

From here the exchange might go something like this:

“To begin with, when you have been saying you wanted more leadership, I suspect that what you meant was more do-as-I-want-you-to-ship.”

Invariably, this produces a flash of recognition, coupled with awkward silence and the tension of embarrassment. But it passes fairly quickly.

I then ask the business owner or manager another question.

“What are you willing to give up?”

Inevitably, this leads to a conversation that has the potential client see their role in the problem they’ve described — a shortage of leadership. Accountability, the precondition for leadership, is a choice you can offer, not a sentence you can hand down. If what you truly want is leadership, then you need to be prepared to give up something and generally the “give up” you are least likely to want to give is the final say in at least some aspect of running the business. So where is leadership most missing in your business and how are you controlling the situation?

This statement often brings up an authentic, “I am not really comfortable with this.”

You should feel uncomfortable! That’s the feeling that goes along with truly depending on someone else.

Getting comfortable with low level anxiety is the first step on the path to allowing your employees to choose to be accountable.

Personally, I have seen leaders knowingly choose control over business results or staff development on more than one occasion, especially when they knew they could make their numbers without letting go.

So, when we get to this stage, the conversation invariably turns solemn, like something bad is about to happen.

Thankfully, at least on some occasions something productive happens and the owner or manager sees that not letting go is going to constrain them to living with the same results they already have. They begin to see that if they are up to anything more, allowing more autonomy is the price of admission into a new realm of possibility.

But the potential client does not always see the light. On those occasions the question is: Did you think more leadership would be free? If you can make your numbers without letting go, keep doing what you’ve been doing — unless of course your intuition is telling you there is something more to be had than just making the numbers. Or maybe retaining control is worth not growing your business? Depending on what they say next we either get started or I leave their office — with my hat. I am obviously needed elsewhere.

Note: A version of this column was previously published on in 2014.

Mike Cook ‘s columns appear on every other Tuesday. He facilitates a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at He recently published ‘Thriving in the Middle: Why Managers Need to Be Coaching Each Other

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