Leading versus Enabling

Although I coach design leaders for a living the obsession and even the word “leadership” has always made me uncomfortable. 

The kinds of articles you find in the Harvard Business Review tend to fetishise leadership, overplay personal brilliance and underplay the role of luck. Articles like 8 Essential Qualities of Successful Leaders appear to assume you can run the tape backwards. 

Sure, you can research successful leaders and extract a number of traits they may have (notice “lucky” isn’t among them), but then what? You can’t just try and ape those traits and assume you’ll be successful. 

Plus most of them are so high level, they apply to all levels of people working in an organisation. As the exchange goes in The Incredibles, if everyone is special, no one is.

What behaviours are you enabling?

I prefer to think of leadership as being an enabler. Partly this is because the idea of a “leader” suggests there must be followers and that feels too old-fashioned, top-down, command and control. While teams do want guidance and leadership, I don’t know that many people like to think of themselves as followers.

It is all too easy to slip into a mode of leadership in which you say—or demand—a certain activity or outcome, but fail to enable it. Worse, you or the organisation’s structure prevents people from achieving what you are asking for. I hear of this pattern over and over again from my coachees. CEOs who want innovation, but also want to be 100% of success before setting down that path.

Or Product leaders who say a quality product experience is central to their value proposition, but then prevent design teams from delivering it because they do not want to be slowed down. “We’ll fix it later” is usually the mantra there. “But they never do,” is usually what I hear coachees lament. 

It’s like they’re dropping subpar features off of the back of a speedboat and by the time anyone things about going back for them, they’re either too far away or have sunk under the surface (just enough for an unwitting customer to crash into it).

I like to use the word enabler because it is both negative an positive. Positive in the way that leaders can enable people to do their best work, remove structural barriers, enable healthy and positive work cultures. In that way I like to think of leadership as slow-motion faclitation. This is a particularly helpful mental model for design leaders, since they have often done a lot of workshop facilitation and understand the idea of reading the room, the vibe, the cadence, and so on.

We also understand the word enabler in the negative sense. Someone who enables an addict is someone who contributes to or exacerbates negative or destructive behaviours. This shows up as leaders expecting staff to respond to messages at all hours, expecting them to work at evenings or weekends because “the work has to get done”, passively or actively enabling a culture of bullying, inequality or discrimination, and, of course, gaslighting.

The tricky part is that so many “superpowers” or the so-called traits of highly successful leaders have a shadow side. You might have an amazingly analytical mind and an eye for detail, but over indexing on that becomes micromanagement. You might do the opposite and be a super-relaxed, hands-off leader, believing in your people’s ability to handle problems in the best way they see fit. But that can lead to directionless mayhem as everyone pulls in different directions or low morale because people don’t have a sense of purpose.

Positive enabling requires curiosity, intentionality and reflection. It requires actually Seeing people for the humans they are, being intentional about what you are trying to achieve and reflecting upon the context in which you are asking them to do it. You’re a gardener, not a military commander. Pulling the plants or shouting at them does not make them grow.

Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

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