“Why Won’t They Lead?

It’s a great question – a leader wants a team that not only executes tasks but also anticipates needs, manages workloads autonomously, and navigates the future with foresight.

This particular question, raised with me by a client about their team, opened up a deep dive into what it means to create the right environment to cultivate autonomy and leadership within a team.

This blog delves into the crux of this predicament and offers insights on cultivating a leadership culture within your team.

The Core of the Challenge

I have spoken before of my love of Post-It notes, and there are always multiple pads of these on my desk, on which I’ll regularly scribble questions and challenges I’m facing, as well as themes that emerge from my work, which I think might make for interesting blog posts and today’s comes from one such note.

The note simply reads, “Why won’t they lead?” – it’s a question that a client asked about their team and which formed the basis for some deep exploration.

This leader had a team of seven who were more than capable of delivering work once it had been divided up and handed to them, but he was looking for more.

What he really wanted was a team that proactively managed their workloads, helped him to see around corners and to do things without being asked.

Why didn’t he have this and how had it become this way?

Waiters vs. Doctors

When I help people think about collaboration, it can be a useful framework for them to think about the idea of waiters and doctors.

  • Waiters are order takers. They ask you what you want, you tell them and they provide it.
  • Doctors are very different. They take time to understand where you’re trying to get to or what’s holding you back and then they identify what you need (a prescription, a referral, etc) and they provide that for you.

In this analogy, the leader above had a team of waiters.

They came along waiting to be told what he needed, and they provided it. Now, that’s certainly better than a team of poor waiters who don’t provide what’s needed, but it’s not where the leader wanted them to be.

The Root of the Issue

So, how did it get to be that way? Why was he surrounded by waiters rather than doctors?

There are lots of reasons; sometimes that can be based on their previous experience and how they’ve been trained or how they’ve been managed, sometimes it can be a lack of confidence or a fear of stepping beyond the boundaries that they perceive themselves as operating within, but all is not lost!

In my experience, one of the most common reasons you’re finding yourself surrounded by waiters is because you make requests rather than share your desired outcomes.

If you always tell people exactly what you want done, when and how, then, of course you’re going to end up in a situation where your team comes to you with their bowls out like Oliver Twist, waiting to take and execute on the next instruction! You’ve made a rod for your own back.

Shifting the Paradigm

All that said, what can a leader do when that happens? Well, there are a lot of things that can help, but there are a few fundamental elements that can be really useful and I’d like to share a few to get you started.

  1. Firstly, in order for your team and those you collaborate with on projects and programmes to move from waiters to doctors, they need to know what’s important to you and not just from one task to the next. Share the bigger picture. This could mean articulating your vision, mission, goals, objectives, etc.

    If they don’t know where you’re trying to get to, what’s important and how you’ll measure success they have next to no chance of being able to proactively help you get there. And that all starts with YOU being clear about those things. So take a time-out, sit down with a cuppa and a pen and paper and articulate exactly where you’re trying to get to. Then, once it’s lovely and concise, share it with your collaborators, your team and anyone else you need to help you get there.

  2. Then you need to ask them! If they’re going along just fine through their careers as waiters, where is the incentive for them to become doctors? Use the waiter/doctor analogy if it helps, but explain that you’d like to see them evolve and that you’re keen to help them grow. Explain to them what that’ll look like and how it’ll differ from what they do now. Give them more rope.
  3. After that, you need to ensure that your leadership creates psychological safety. Naturally, in this transition, some people will get it wrong. They’ll do things that you don’t want and won’t do some things that you do. That’s frustrating but it’s ok – it’ll take time to get to the stage where they deeply understand your vision and are able to put themselves in your shoes to consider and take the next steps that are needed to advance towards it.

    When those mistakes do happen, be mindful of how you respond. Support, coach, empathise and reflect. Don’t drag them over the coals, or you’re making it more likely that they’ll revert back to being waiters where their heads don’t need to come above the parapet and risk being shot off.

  4. And a final step is to praise and reward when you see it done well. You’ll get more of the things you reward, so when it happens, help the team recognise it and show how much it means to you. That’ll help grease the wheels and build momentum!

Win-Win for Everyone

What’s in it for you is clear – you get to a place where you no longer need to spoon-feed your team, but what’s in it for them?

Well, if we think about the brilliant “Drive” by Daniel Pink, you’re hitting all three of the pillars of intrinsic motivation.

  • Firstly, you’re giving them autonomy by letting them operate without the strict boundaries they were in as a waiter. They get to come up with ideas, help think of where the team is going and be creative in helping it get there.
  • Then, they develop mastery. They get better by doing more and developing a deeper understanding of how the pieces of the organisational puzzle fit together.
  • And finally, you’re giving them a sense of purpose. It’s no longer about small, isolated, discrete tasks without recognition as to why those are important. Now, they see the bigger picture and get to contribute to it.

Lead the Change

Great leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders. This can be a great place to start! Give it a go, and let me know how you get on!

Embracing these insights can transform your team from mere executors of tasks to proactive thinkers and problem-solvers. This transformation begins with you. Share your vision, encourage growth, create safety, and acknowledge achievements. It’s not just about the tasks at hand but fostering an environment where everyone feels empowered to lead.

How have you encouraged your team to develop their own lead? If you’d like to continue the conversation, please feel free to contact us:

Email: info@Co-Creation.group or call: 0161 969 2512

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