Who ever knew that the great .38 Special held the secret to a good leadership viewpoint?
Just hold on loosely
But don't let her go
If you cling too tightly
You're gonna lose control
“Hold on Loosely” by .38 Special
That simple lyric holds a valuable viewpoint for leaders. The song, of course, is about a girl. But imagine you are holding a small bird in your hand. If you hold the bird too tightly, you’ll crush it. If you hold the bird too loosely, it will escape. But if you hold it just right, not too loosely and not too tightly, then the bird will stay in your hand, and maybe even feel safe. And if you focus on it, it’s probably not too hard to figure out just the right amount of pressure to keep the bird in your grasp.
It’s the same way with leadership. One of the toughest decisions leaders make is how much control to exert over their people. It’s a delicate balance. Both too much and too little can cause difficulties and cause you to lose your team. Finding just the right amount of control is a large challenge.
The tendency of many leaders is to “cling too tightly”. They tend to want to have close control over their people. They want to make sure every little detail is taken care of, setting rules, procedures, and processes for every little thing to ensure that things never get out of control. They view their people as merely cogs in machine, and thus give them little autonomy to make decision, innovate, improvise, and otherwise come up with their own solutions. They make every decision, ensuring (in their minds) that things are going perfectly.
There is a word for this – micro-management. No one ever thinks that they are being a micro-manager. In my experience, the more a leader micro-manages, the more he thinks he isn’t. Micro-managers tend to think that they are providing leadership because it’s needed, because their team can’t be trusted, or, sadly, because they think that their team is simply incompetent to do the job. Or perhaps they feel that they have to be involved in order to get the credit.
Whatever the reason, a leader who clings too tightly is being ineffective and usually has a negative effect on her team. People feel the lack of trust, and that’s demoralizing. Teams that are given little autonomy soon lose their desire to improve and find better ways to do things. When their leader has all the answers and always knows what is best, why even try?
But holding on too loosely can have a similar effect. If a team feels that their leader can’t make decisions or is wishy-washy, then they feel adrift and unsure. No one likes a ship captain who doesn’t know where the ship should be going. And a ship that is headed nowhere will surely get there. Not making any decisions is no better than making all the decisions.
The trick or course, is to hold with just the right amount of pressure. Good leaders find that perfect balance between control and chaos. They let their team decide how to accomplish tasks within general guidelines. They encourage improvisation and innovation in a search for better ways of doing things. They know that there are some things that need to be done a certain way, but that there are many things that don’t. They trust their team to get things done their own way. They know that if a team member gets credit, it reflects positively on their leadership.
In general, they hold just tightly enough to keep things in control. They let team members make decisions. They recognize that mistakes will be made and that daring to do something different is a feature, not a bug. They make decisions when the team needs a decision, and they delegate decisions as much as possible. They recognize that they have a tendency to “squeeze to tightly” and thus, when in doubt, tend to err on the side of holding too loosely. They understand that autonomy and self-direction are very satisfying, and do everything they can to provide that to their team.
Just as a good veterinarian knows how to hold a bird with the right amount of pressure, a good leader knows the precise amount of control to exert over his team.