Reminiscences of Letting Go

Posted by jlubans on May 08, 2018

A sports storyDo coaches matter?” recalls my letting go efforts when I
was heading up a large group of staff and managers.
As the story has it: “Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors broke one of the NBA’s most inviolable laws of coaching. He relinquished his dry-erase board—to a player.”
That this was deemed newsworthy by the Wall Street Journal suggests just how unusual letting go is in the highly ritualized world of basketball. How formal? Some teams have an assistant designated to provide a chair for the coach when in a huddle. Another assistant hands him/her the dry erase board for charting plays.
Frankly, I have to wonder why it’s taken so long for a coach to turn over some of the decision making to talented players.
No, I am not suggesting that each and every team can do this. As I learned from my own experience there are groups and there are individuals, who, when turned lose, deliver. On others, the new freedom is lost.
Had I to do it over again, I'd be less egalitarian and not think everyone should welcome being set free to think.
Instead, I would focus on only those direct reports who had the capacity to think on their own, who were willing to do so, and, importantly, who had the knowledge and skill to see beyond themselves. Working with this small cadre I became a better leader and the organization benefited from these new perspectives and insights.
And, timing matters. In the Steve Kerr story, one commentator notes that the coach steps aside only when the team is leading by 30 or 40 points.
So, one might ask, just how committed is the coach to letting go?
What if the game is tied and five seconds remain on the clock? Does Coach Kerr stand aside while the players huddle and decide on the “win or lose” play?
If your group is “winning” - at work or play - it may not matter that now and then the boss lets the workers make decisions.
However, once the group begins to struggle or skids into a “rough patch” then letting go may not be tolerated by higher ups.
Again, that’s a reason to be selective in who gets to lead. Some people need more guidance to lead while others simply do not want to. It’s not in their job description they’ll tell you.
My peers were shocked when I began to free up some of the best people in my organization. I was for some, a traitor to the administrative class.
The results, however, were excellent, especially in the areas in need of the most de-congestion and innovation.
Regardless, those remarkable successes did not encourage my peers to hand over, so to speak, their dry-erase boards to subordinates.
Instead, the muted response was that our success was a fluke; the boss always had to maintain control: in other words no sharing the dry-erase board, "It's mine!".
My “Leading from the Middle” book elaborates on my adventures in letting go. For example, the chapters on the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra explore the difficulties of letting workers make decisions. Only about a quarter of the orchestra wants to take on a leadership role by heading up the “core” decision-making group. Every player does offer up his or her opinion on how things are going but when the decision has to be made - and it cannot be made spontaneously, emanating from group deliberation - then it appears only a few are willing to take on that role. Interestingly, one or two then begin to boss others like the worst totalitarian conductor!

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© Copyright John Lubans 2018

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