Why True Success Happens When You Lead from the Sidelines

Leading Others

11th November 2021

That dopamine boost we all get after a ‘job well done’ is a natural human driver. It’s natural to feel proud of your skills, knowledge and expertise. It’s even more natural to want to showcase them when you take on a leadership role. After all, remarkable performance is probably why you’re in that position. But what makes a remarkable leader is different…even counter-intuitive, at first glance. 

Many aspects of leadership have been pulled into sharper focus by the pandemic, not least the ability to unleash the best in our people. Today that’s an uphill battle; employees’ mental ‘surge capacity’ that kicked in during crisis, has been replaced by a well of discretionary effort that they will withhold if their expectations for growth, fulfilment and recognition aren’t met. And your best intentions might be letting you down. 

Being a remarkable leader requires an act of self-denial that goes against many high-performer instincts: pocketing your own expertise and leaning into letting people succeed independently of you. 

But how is that even possible? Why is it so important? How does staying on the sidelines increase your credibility?

Read on to reflect on whether you and your leaders are really enabling your people to bring their best- for both themselves and the business.

Don’t let ego get the better of you

Ego doesn’t need to be taboo. Why should it be? We all have one. For many of us it is moulded by the fact we’re taught from a young age that we’re highly valued by our technical competence; how we stand out and push ourselves in a world where knowledge is the perceived greatest currency.

As such, what if you were told that once you’ve climbed the ranks, your value as a leader no longer lies in how brilliant you are, but in how you can cultivate brilliance in your team? That your role as a leader is to give your team members the tools and opportunity to find their own unique intelligence, not to display your own?  Would you have balked at or embraced the change in responsibility? 

Confidence is a strength, but it can easily slip into blinkered thinking, especially in times of crisis when the pressure is on to be decisive. Defaulting to your own quick decision making is sometimes necessary, and ultimately part of the job, but when it is the result of a relentless belief in your superior opinion or ability, the damage done to team trust and performance is significant. 

When the boss’s genius is so impressed upon the team, how can people ever trust their own judgement and flourish, let alone disagree or engage in debate about decisions or processes? 

Allowing ego to get in the way, takes away from your employee’s opportunity for frequent, authentic recognition, which 37% of a 2021 O.C Tanner survey respondents claim is the most important factor in enabling them to produce their best work. That is more than inspiration, autonomy and pay-increase, combined. 

Leaders who see their team members primarily as subordinates, and not the key players that they are, don’t seek out the plurality of perspectives on offer or benefit from the lively ideation that truly empowered employees generate.

To make a change today, prioritise what your people have to say with these 40 questions that focus their intelligence on the right problems. Then make it safe for them find the answers. 

Good intentions can actually diminish your team the most

In a recent interview for global recruitment consultancy Robert Walters on what it means to be a leader who multiplies the capability of their team, our Head of Consultancy, Paul Coates, had this to say: 

“If you are asking the question ‘what if it is too much for my team?’, that comes from the same mindset as ‘people won’t figure this out without me’. Let people prove that they need you before you assume they do.”

More often than not, if a leader is diminishing their people’s passion, confidence and therefore contribution, it is unwittingly and with good intentions in mind. As our partner Liz Wiseman shares in her best-seller Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, diminishing tendencies are so often accidental because they’re traditionally associated with the positive behaviours of strong performers, even strong leaders. 

 Leading with intention starts with understanding how our natural tendencies can take us down the wrong path – how seemingly strong leadership traits can go awry and become our vulnerability.- Liz Wiseman, author, Multipliers

They show good intention, but misguided judgement. Accidental diminishers want to get quality work done, make an impact and motivate others, but that then translates into prioritising their own voice, taking away choice or downplaying what others find challenging. 

The most common example of a leader who strives to do the right thing but diminishes their people in the process, is the rescuer. It sounds nice on the surface, right? These leaders rescue people from tough situations in a bid to support and protect their reputation, but in doing so they stunt their ability to grow, overcome future challenges and rob them of that sense of achievement from doing so. 

This is not a case for unceremoniously letting your team sink or deferring responsibility when times are hard; it is however caring about individual ownership, recognition, and confidence, and knowing how to keep it intact whilst clearing the path.

Where might your accidental diminisher traits lie?

Do you say, “leave it to me” rather than giving people the scope to solve their own problems? Do you think people can’t, or won’t, figure things out without you? Alternatively, does your can-do attitude and confidence in your team come off as clueless, or worse indifferent, optimism? That’s right, even optimism can be diminishing– when it downplays others troubles. 

Do you feel like nobody can do things quite like you? Do you think to ensure something is done correctly, you need to be in control? Do you trust your team to come to you for your expertise when they need it, or not? Do you take learning by osmosis a bit too literally?

Diminishers might be able to create success in the short term, but the innovation, momentum and potential of the team will ultimately hit a limit that it really doesn’t have to.

Ultimately, if you aren’t giving people the chance for autonomous problem-solving or allowing them to respond to challenges, they won’t be flexing muscles that must be put under stress in order to build strength. Give people a challenge, and they will either step up or they won’t- and then you can coach them through it. If you never give them the chance, how can they show you what they are capable of?

Your smarts aren’t enough. Leaders need everyone to tap into what’s possible today

The natural opposite to a diminisher leader, is a multiplier. They champion the efforts of others before their own. Multipliers don’t want or need to be the smartest person in the room.  They’re humble, open-minded, considerate and understanding. They’re a leader in service of their people, but also the business. There is no trade-off. 

Multiplier leaders drive results with fewer resources by nurturing the unique intelligence of their team,  seeking out, and redirecting their untapped capabilities. They see additional value people have to offer, and they want access to it.  Paul Coates reminds us: 

Working for someone who is a multiplier isn’t a soft and fluffy thing. If a multiplier sees a lot of potential in their team, then the natural consequence is that they also expect a lot of their teams.

A multiplier lives in the real world, but not complacently. They live outside of the comfort zone, and pull their people out with them. The reason these leaders foster emotional investment not disengagement, despite the discomfort, is because the stretching is done in a way that sets them up for success, not tests whether or not they fail.

These leaders empower high-performing teams who voluntarily dig deep, because they align what excites individuals with what the business needs.

Now, in a world that has redefined what’s possible for both employees and organisations, multiplier leaders will be the ones who create a working experience people buy-in to, and keeps performance competitive. 

Organisations must create a culture that celebrates ‘cheer’ leaders

Leaders who put their team members front and centre feel secure in the value they add to the organisation. We all need recognition, and it is the responsibility of senior leadership to create an environment wherein leaders at all levels know that their credibility is not dependent on how loud their voice is or whether they hold all the answers. 

People tend to become like you treat them or like you believe them to be- Dr. Stephen R. Covey

If your team succeeds, you succeed. If they succeed without your direct input, but with the tools, direction and confidence you have given them, you will stand out as a remarkable leader- even from the sidelines. 


Want to learn more about what it takes to develop leaders who empower people to grow, experiment and choose to give their best? Watch our webinar Bring People Towards What’s Possible with Leadership Practice Lead Tim Threipland  to explore the importance of extending ‘smart’ trust, how to foster self-confidence in your workforce, and aligning what excites the individual with what the business needs.