A Leadership Balancing Act - Boundaries, Risk, and Responsibilities


As an organisational leader you usually have a balancing act to perform especially around how well (or not) your team contributes to organisational success or not. Much depends on how well you manage to harness the commitment, efforts, skills and effectiveness of your  team, and then how well you are able to let go and allow your team to take up the challenge and deliver.

If you are anything like me, you will know one of the most difficult dilemmas is determining when as a leader you should let go and allow employees to either float their boat, or sink.

In order to do this well, leaders need to have 3 grounded abilities

A)  A reciprocal and healthy sense of taking and giving responsibility

B)  An ability  to communicate their own boundaries and a have healthy respect for other people’s

C)  The courage to take and manage calculated risk.

Being able to apply these in working relationships is essential for good decision making, although for many reasons some find difficult to do.   A mismatch of parameters can and does create disharmony, distrust, and demotivation within and sometimes outside of the team.

I remember a story about a brilliant CEO who was driven and committed to a life changing cause, was respected by peers and stakeholders.  He got good results mostly and where he didn’t, had a great handle on problems.  What he didn’t realise of course was  75% of his team were slowly sliding off the edge of the deck, while the remainder were  standing at his back cheering him on, watching him steer the boat.

This great man had such an extended sense of responsibility he couldn’t see that by trying to control the whole ship, he was systematically disempowering his team - except of course those who liked to enjoy the view through the porthole along the way. He was wary of taking risks, giving over control and allowing his team to take some of the responsibility from him.

There are many variations on the theme and of course no-one’s perfect.  There are many times I disempower my kids by making decisions for them.  In a work situation, when the risk seemed too great I have been known to take over and override an employee’s decision; although I tried to do it kindly, of course, it was not always perceived that way.  Sometimes you have to let people fall and suffer the consequences of that fall to learn and grow.  That can be a tough call for a leader.

Alternatively, I heard from a team who had big problems because their leader “overdid” delegation.  He was so focused on what others should or must be responsible for, he left himself out of the equation. He didn’t gain the respect of his team, as they often felt overburdened and were wary of asking for help because the signals he was giving indicated he didn’t really want to be involved, although that wasn’t the case at all.

One of the most difficult issues is respecting role boundaries.  Of course roles are meant to be fluid and let’s face it, we all must cross over role boundaries at times in order to get the job done.  But there are times when crossing over such boundaries either masks poor performance or muddies the water so much that it becomes confusing about accountability.  Good role boundaries are essential, with a good degree of flexibility, under certain conditions and agreed circumstances when it is appropriate to do so.

When to let go and when to keep steering can seem daunting. Much depends on a leader’s inner confidence and maturity. The following examples “allow” people to achieve and take responsibility, within their boundaries, without enormous risks.

Delivering results

  1. Set outcomes and final timelines then let the team work out  “how”
  2. Reward exceptional results and have clear consequences for non-achievement

Engaging people

  1. Empower teams to become involved in innovation, discussion and decisions wherever possible.  Set standards around employee engagement.  Understand the actions and behaviours which will facilitate engagement.
  2. Create zero tolerance for persistent lack of buy-in.   Make engagement with the business a pre-requisite for working with you.  Highlight and reward behaviours which demonstrate buy in.  Clearly identify when lack of engagement causes problems for the organisation and act when you see it happening.

Creating  great teams

  1.  Be clear about what you expect, including behaviours, internal and external customer service and contribution.  Make team-working a performance measure.
  2. Allow teams to work to their strengths, creating ownership, whilst maintaining corporate consistency in delivery.

I have rarely worked with or for a leader who gets responsibility and boundaries completely right.   And of course how much leeway you give others has to be tempered by calculation of risk.   It’s no good pointing fingers at the people falling into the water when the boat is already sinking, is it?  What do you think?  In your experience do leaders get the balance right?

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