Bath towels can be folded two main ways. You can start by folding them in half along the length or the width. Either way you start, the end result looks exactly the same. I use this analogy to explain one of the most challenging aspects of leading people.
We all have a certain way we like to do things or, as leaders, ways we want things to be done. Sometimes, it has to do with the process and sometimes it has to do with our preconceived notions. Even when we aren’t going to actually perform a task ourselves, we mentally establish a method of how we would do that task. That method includes the steps involved, but most challenging for leaders is the fact that we also preconceive a level of quality at which we know we can perform the task. These preconceptions automatically create an expectation leaders have about the task at hand. However, what truly matters is the outcome, not the process. Remember the towels.
The transition from action officer (doer) to leader (tasker) is challenging for many folks. We move from being a highly lauded, subject matter expert on a specific skill or capability to the person who is supposed to set a strategic direction; build a high performing, smarter-than-you, complementary team, and enable the team to succeed for a higher purpose. This involves letting go of our approach, our preferences, our biases on how things should be done. This is good, but very hard. Going back to a previous post, this requires great humility and confidence in perfect balance. Humility allows us to build a team that is smarter, better looking and more creative than us…the most interesting team alive! Confidence allows us to leverage our experience and knowledge built on years of successes and mistakes to prepare this team, equip them properly and cut them loose to achieve the objectives the leader establishes for the good of the organization/mission. When we focus on outcomes, not threats to our credibility or level of expertise, everyone wins. The outcome is important, the process—not so much. Remember the towels.
Of course, the leader still needs to maintain oversight. Different approaches can lead to superior results, but they also may require excessive resources (time, money or people) if not allowed to leverage the experience and wisdom of the leader. That doesn’t mean we need to stick our fingers in every little detail. Cut people loose; give them space to be creative and take initiative; but guide them when they’re going down paths you already tried and failed. Then let them fold lengthwise or widthwise—it doesn’t matter. Even if you have a preference.