Leaders Help People to Help Themselves

Leaders Help People to Help Themselves

“There are incalculable resources in the human spirit, once it has been set free.” — Hubert Humphrey, Former U.S. Vice President  Remember the old television series, The Lone Ranger? A lot of traditional managers see themselves in a similarly heroic role.

In the TV show, when the poor hapless townsfolk got themselves into big trouble, the Lone Ranger and his faithful sidekick would come riding over the hill. With the right degree of courage, wit, and cunning, he faced down the mean hombre or otherwise took care of the problem for the town. At the end of the nice, neat, half hour episode, our hero would leave the grateful townsfolk behind wondering, “Who was that masked man?”

The same spirit of rugged individualism runs deep within many of today’s “heroic managers.” They solve problems, take command, control and direct, occasionally empower team members, and are caught up in putting out daily operating fires. They are often overworked and a growing number are burning out. Managers often talk about their volume of email, voice mail, projects, meetings, and many hours worked. Is that bragging or complaining? One of the big reasons typical managers are caught up in their “busyness” cycle is because it makes them feel important. They are at the center of the action. They are making it happen. They get the adrenaline rush of urgent heroic problem-solving that saves the day for their poor hapless team.

Leaders spend much less time personally solving problems. They invest their time in making sure that the right problems are being solved. Here’s how we might rewrite The Lone Ranger script for a leader rather than a heroic manager:

Responding to the call for help, the Lone Ranger rides into town, gets down off his high horse, takes off his mask, and facilitates a process by which the townspeople solve the crisis for themselves. He gets to know the people and matches their strengths and abilities to established performance targets. After seeing them through the crisis, he rides out of town, with the townspeople saying, “Hey, we solved this ourselves.”

When the next problem arose, the townspeople might still call for the Lone Ranger, but in an advisory capacity; they would be more likely to handle the crisis within the team. Each time they handled their own problems, they would increase their ability to identify and eliminate the root causes, their capacity to work as a team, and their level of confidence. Eventually the Lone Ranger and Tonto would join the lonely Maytag Repairman, flipping playing cards into their hats as they swap stories around the campfire.

Of course, the “leader version” of the Lone Ranger wouldn’t make very good television. It’s less dramatic and action packed. The hero doesn’t save the day. Heading off problems and solving root causes leads to less pressure-packed “excitement.” Getting teams to share the workload and become more self-sufficient reduces the short-term adrenaline rush. It totally shifts the team leader’s role and focus.

The fact is that organizations need both management and leadership. Ultimately it depends on the situation. There are times when the manager needs to ride into town, take control, issue commands, and solve the problem immediately. Indeed, to do otherwise in such cases might be seen as an abdication of responsibility. But such actions are generally needed only as a short-term response in times of crisis. If managers stay in crisis mode continuously, they weaken their teams, increase their own workload, multiply dependence on them, kill commitment and ownership, and reduce partnering. Personal, team, and organization growth is stunted.

By John Hester

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