On Friday I did something that used to strike fear in my heart. I took my two young boys to the video store to select a movie for the weekend. The kids walked into the store, agreed on a movie, and we walked out the door in less than 10 minutes. Easy. But it used to be a nightmare. They would bicker on and on about which movie to get. I would mediate and ultimately figure out which movie would satisfy them both.
Until one day when we’d been in the store for 20 agonizing minutes with no end in sight and I’d reached my limit. I said, “It’s your job to pick out a movie together. If you can’t agree, we will not get a movie.” As the squabbling continued, I refused to get in the middle and just repeated, “Talk to your brother and figure it out.” Eventually it sunk in and, miraculously, we walked out with a movie in hand.
Now it’s habit for them. Whether it’s deciding which snack to buy at the grocery store or which video game to play first, I don’t do the heavy lifting for them. And they’re getting good at it. They approach problems differently than I would. Their reasoning is different. And their solutions are creative.
As leaders, this can be an easy trap to fall into. We don’t give employees a chance to do the heavy lifting of figuring out their own solutions. We want to hang on to what’s made us successful: namely, being great solution generators. We shy away from delegating because it’s easier and faster just to do it ourselves. If we really want to be successful, we need to conquer our fear of delegation and get our minds around what it means to contribute in a different way.
My boys weren’t learning anything from watching me pick out a movie or make the peace between them. But when I gave them the power to make a decision I normally make, that’s when the learning kicked in. About how it feels to be empowered, to have the authority to make decisions, to develop a new-found confidence in their capabilities.
That’s what good leaders should do – let their people learn not just by observing leaders but by doing the work of leaders. I like this quote from Rudolf Frieling, SFMOMA curator of media arts:
“(T)hese objects, once they are assembled, will lend themselves to certain functions, but they might also be reconfigured and used in ways that we can not foresee. Precisely because we might embrace the idea of dysfunctionality-the fact that it becomes more difficult to do something maybe is what makes it more interesting — and provide an open situation.”