As a New Leader, How Do You Manage Being Responsible Yet Not in Control?
By Chris Duprey
One of the toughest challenges that I’ve faced throughout my career as an organizational leader — both during my time in the Army and in civilian life — has been being responsible for outcomes that I didn’t personally control.
This is simply a fact of life when it comes to being a leader; you are no longer the doer. Instead, you are the leader of those doing the work.
If leadership is a role that is in your path, as you progress throughout your career, you can expect to move farther and farther away from the people who are doing the direct work, but they still lead directly into the outcomes and results that you own.
As a new leader, this is one of the most difficult challenges you will overcome. To show you what I mean, let me tell you a little story.
I knew I would be responsible for everything that did or did not happen
One of the first things I remember learning as a Cadet in ROTC was that in most roles I would have in the future, I would be responsible for everything that did or didn’t happen. This meant that, as a platoon leader, everything related to my platoon was my responsibility, whether I actually touched it or not. And, as a company commander, the same thing applied.
At first, this was completely overwhelming.
There were so many things that my platoon needed to do, so many places where things could go wrong. I also knew I couldn’t be everywhere, doing everything — yet I was still responsible for all of it.
So, I think I did what many young leaders do. I still tried to be everywhere and do everything.
(For any veterans out there, you’re probably laughing a bit thinking of a young Second Lieutenant (2LT) or Ensign trying to be in “charge” looking completely lost.)
Later on, I became company commander in the late summer of 2012 in Afghanistan, right as my unit was redeploying back to Fort Bragg. As I took on this role, I was once again thrust into a leadership position where I now was responsible for everything that my company did or didn’t do.
Instead of reverting back to a young 2LT Duprey and trying to be everything to everyone — in essence, micro-managing — I chose a different route. This time I would figure out how to set the conditions for my company to be successful, rather than using nothing but sheer determination to get everything done.
Did this new approach work?
My time in command wasn’t perfect. Frankly, it was far from it.
However, we were successful. We didn’t always get everything done perfectly, but we did everything we could. We also weren’t a company that was trying to be perfect. Rather, we were a company that was always learning, so, when called on, we could do our jobs as part of the larger mission.
Morale was high.
Leaders were developed.
And the day I left command was the hardest and one of the most rewarding days in my life. (Truth be told, as I wrote that last sentence, I was overcome by some very raw emotion just thinking about my time as Dog 6 - Commander, D Co., 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.)
I’m not offering a secret trick that will allow you to automatically become more comfortable with the fact that you are responsible for stuff that you don’t directly control. What I am going to share is how I attack this problem today — which is how I attacked it when I was in command.
You may be asking, “Where do I begin?”
The answer is you start with establishing awareness of both yourself and your team. I don’t know that I would have said this six years ago when I was in command, but it is definitely the starting point I firmly believe in now.
If you lack this essential awareness of self and others, you won’t be able to accurately assess how your actions are impacting you and your team. So, this is where you need to begin.
There are many ways you can work on this. You can work with a coach or mentor, you can ask for feedback from your team or manager, or you can find another way that helps you get in touch and become more aware of your actions.
For me, I’ve done all of this. I’ve worked (and still work) with coaches and teachers. I’ve had a 360 review from my team. I’ve gotten feedback from my leaders, and I’ve adopted a very strong meditation practice.
All of this has led to a stronger awareness of myself, even though I still have plenty of blind spots. The key is that once you gain a level of self-awareness when blind spots are made aware, you will naturally be less defensive and more open to hearing about them.
As you do this work (which could be and will be a separate article) and become more self-aware you will also become more attuned to those around you. You will become others-aware. This is when you have the ability to sense how people are feeling.
Some would call this being able to “read the room.”
These skill sets allow you to know how your actions and words are impacting your team for better or worse, which allows you to effectively lead them.
“OK, I’m working on awareness, but what’s next?”
Beyond awareness, your focus as a leader should be setting the conditions for success.
I know this is a loaded phrase, but it best describes what you need to do if you’re going to be able to handle the reality that is upon you.
So, let's break this down.
The only way to get everything accomplished with your team is to delegate. It is a simple fact that if you don’t delegate, you will be stuck doing all the work, which will leave you completely overwhelmed — insert 2LT Duprey. Moreover, it will leave your team with little to do (insert frustrated team), which generally leads to not achieving the goal or getting done what needs to get done.
The problem I continue to see, however, is that leaders — especially new — are afraid to delegate.
They are stuck in a mental loop in which they tell themselves the story that they are the only ones that can handle the task at hand; which is, in essence, abdicating their role as leader and returning to their previous role as an individual contributor.
So, how do we break this cycle?
This is where conditions setting really begins. We need to start by setting expectations and educating our teams.
This can be as simple as ensuring they understand what is expected of them, teaching your team how to execute new tasks that they don’t know how to do, or showing them where to educate themselves.
The key here is that we don’t simply become the leader and expect our people to know how to do what is needed. Instead, we set the tone by educating them, over and over, so that we can build a team that can handle the work and achieves what is possible.
If you are a new leader (or quite frankly any type of leader) and you are feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders, you’re stuck in the “no one can do it but me” syndrome. So, take a moment and think about how well you’ve educated your team to do what needs to be done.
This is one of the moments where you may need to slow down to speed up — or, as we used to say in the Army, "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast." Meaning you may need to stop, do some training focusing on ensuring your team understands what they need to do, and then delegate.
When I took command, this was the first thing that I knew I needed to do.
In my initial counseling sessions with my platoon leaders (junior officers in charge of a platoon of about 20 paratroopers), I made it clear that I wasn’t going to do their job. We discussed what was expected of them, where to look for guidance (their platoon sergeant, squad leaders, and doctrine) and to figure things out.
As I observed and worked with each platoon leader, I would coach them on areas that needed work. I would help guide them to the answer, not do it for them. This led to a group of self-sufficient young leaders, who knew how to take initiative and make things happen, without having to get the commander involved.
The simple idea of clearly laying out expectations, educating them as needed, and showing them where to get educated, helped make my command one of the most rewarding periods in my life.
“I’ve gained awareness, I’ve delegated, now what?”
Once you’ve effectively begun to delegate tasks, now is when you can really empower your team or organization.
As you first begin to delegate you are probably telling people what needs to get done, why it needs to get done, and how they need to do it. This will get things accomplished, but it won’t empower and motivate your team.
The next step is only giving them the what and why and allowing them to figure out how to accomplish the task.
Some of you might be thinking that this is a recipe for disaster… and that's OK.
To make sure that things don’t get out of hand, you set some guard rails around time, resources, or any other things you may be worried about.
When you give your people the freedom to execute, within some boundaries, they gain a feeling of autonomy. Daniel Pink spells out how autonomy is a key ingredient to motivation for intrinsically focused people in his book Drive.
They feel a sense of control over what they are doing. If you are reading this article it is a safe bet that you are, at least partially, intrinsically motivated.
So let me ask you this:
When do you do your best work? When your boss tells you exactly what to do or when she gives you a problem set that needs to be figured out?
My guess is you probably hate the former and get really excited about the latter. So what makes you any different from your team?
“I’ve delegated, I’ve given the team the what and why — now what do I do?”
This is where you may start to feel uneasy as a leader.
You’ve delegated all the work that you could, you’ve given the team guardrails but are letting them figure out how to accomplish the tasks, and now you’ve got this semi-nauseous feeling in your abdomen...
This is the point of knowing that you’ve delegated and empowered your team the right amount. If you don’t feel uncomfortable, then I would ask you to go back and access how well you’ve delegated and empowered.
My gut tells me you are most likely micro-managing.
So, what do we do in this discomfort and what do we actually do now?
First off, we embrace the discomfort. We celebrate how we’re leading our team. Then we do what we do as leaders, follow up, assess, coach, and optimize.
Let's start with following up.
This doesn’t mean asking for a status update every five minutes on Slack. Rather, it means looking at data, looking at plans, and asking questions at the right time to ensure that everything is on task.
This could be a series of status meetings, a shared document with milestones, or simply checking in from time to time with your team or the leader you've delegated the task to.
When you follow up you are going to have the chance to assess how things are going. This will enable you to do some coaching with your team (another form of educating), which will lead to optimizing how the task or tasks are being handled.
In many occasions, you will simply follow up, showing the team that you are still engaged, but you won’t have to coach or optimize, because your team already is internally.
The key here is if we give our people the freedom and autonomy to figure out how to get things done, we still have a responsibility to follow up and ensure that progress is being made.
And that, as the kids say, is the tea…
(Editor's note: It has been noted in Chris' permanent file that he is over 35 years old and making a "spill the tea" reference.)
This is how we, as organizational leaders, can be responsible for everything that does or doesn’t happen, without losing it.
In my military career, as I’ve told you, I’ve been both. I was the micro-manager who tried to get everything done myself, and I’ve been the leader who learned how to delegated and empower.
Through those experiences, I've learned there is no simple answer to how to handle being responsible for everything while not being in direct control of it all. The key here, as with almost any leadership challenge we face, is how we interact with the challenge.
Do we let it own us? Or do we face it, every day with the spirit of “bring it on, I got this”?
When we let it own us, we give up. We either micromanage or we simply don’t get things done. When we say “bring it on,” we accept that we must trust in our team, we must educate, delegate, and empower.
Simply put, we must lead.
Wondering where to begin?