Sometimes the Leader Should Follow
From my early childhood I was encouraged to be decisive. My mother helped me start little businesses that honed my decision-making ability. When I was a quarterback in high school, my coach allowed me to call all my own plays. I held numerous leadership roles during my school years. Then I attended Harvard Business School, where the case method teaches students about decision making.
I was good at making decisions, and this ability was affirmed many times at school and at work. I enjoyed taking responsibility and living with the consequences. Then came AES, which would become a Fortune 200 global energy company, and the realization that this enjoyment should be spread around. I came to understand that as co-founder and later as CEO, I had to STOP making decisions.
The people closest to a decision often know the most about it. They are also the ones who will have to deal with the immediate results of that decision. And bosses aren’t the only people in a business capable of making good decisions. We all make decisions in our everyday lives: in our relationships, our homes, our children and with our free time. It’s just in the workplace that so many of us are not given the freedom to think, reason, and make decisions. That’s also when we, as capable individuals, stop feeling engaged, invested and valued.
I came to understand that as co-founder and later as CEO, I had to STOP making decisions.
Max De Pree writes, “Not having the chance to make decisions within the organization in which one works is a great tragedy, leading to hopelessness and despair.” This is a sober warning. When a leader acts in a manner that assumes he is the best decision maker — in other words, the most knowledgeable and responsible member of a group — everyone else feels extraneous.
The intoxicating effect of exercising power can pervert even the most selfless executives. The more decisions they make, the more comfortable they feel making them. They begin to lose touch with the people below, who end up feeling like pawns being moved around a corporate chessboard.
For many of our people, it was the first time in their working lives that they had been treated with trust and respect by their superiors. And when we distributed decisions and invited more people to take ownership in the process, we achieved the central goals of modern business: engaged people and better decisions. It was a win-win, for both our employees and our business success.
When a leader acts in a manner that assumes he is the best decision maker — in other words, the most knowledgeable and responsible member of a group — everyone else feels extraneous.
One of the most difficult lessons I have had to learn is that leadership is not about managing people. People are not resources or assets to be managed. Nor is leadership about analyzing issues and making big decisions. Leaders serve an organization rather than control it.