The Best Leaders Are Expendable

As leaders, sometimes managing our egos is one of the toughest challenges we face. It’s something that, when not checked, is most likely to get us into trouble as well.

One of my favorite lessons about leadership comes from the Tao Te Ching:

“When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists… When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!”

But does this mean that as the leader of your team, you should make yourself inessential? Well, not quite.

I recently spoke to a friend who was the CEO of a well-respected charitable organisation doing vital work in a remote rural county of the U.K. Budget cuts at the local authority, on whom they relied for most of their funding, reduced their contribution by 50 percent. By some miracle, this CEO was able to keep the doors open, providing a bare-bones service to the people who needed it most. One of the ways she was able to do this was by making herself redundant.

She confided that although she was glad that her work was kept alive, she was struggling with accepting that they were able to get along without her. She felt this conflict because she had worked so incredibly hard to prepare her team for this very day.

She accepted that it was good to see her team succeed autonomously, but of course emotionally it was still hard for her to feel unnecessary. Even knowing the service would otherwise have had to shut down only went so far in soothing her bruised ego.

Feeling needed, feeling essential, is a powerful potion for most of us. When your job involves making sure people in need get the services they rely on, or driving the function that makes your stakeholders happy with big dividends, it’s easy to believe you are the lynchpin that makes it all possible.

In fact, a good leader makes herself essential by being the force that creates a team of people who can get the day-to-day work done without her. A leader who can be fearlessly vulnerable can create effective and capable teams without resorting to heavy-handed, labor-intensive micro-management. This in turn produces a level of self-belief and self-confidence that comes from knowing you can humbly rely on others.

These aren’t some elusive, magical skills or characteristics that only some fortunate people are born with, though. This kind of leader exists in all of us. This kind of leader is realised by bravely bringing the most human parts of ourselves to the table every day, having checked our egos at the door.

You succeed as a leader by reminding yourself that the work is not about you — it’s about what you achieve as a team for the people in need that you serve, or for the bottom line that you take pride in growing, or the reviews of the stellar product that you produce.You lead with humanity and integrity, remembering that every person who comes in to work each day also wants to feel like they are valued and essential and that they are doing a good job. You are in the fortunate position to help each of your team members feel this way.

Letting people get on with their jobs, giving plenty of scope for autonomy and innovation, being open to alternative ways of getting things done, and acknowledging good work — simple things we all want — is part of being an essential leader.

And though the work will have gotten done because of your leadership, your team will have the confidence and satisfaction of having done the work all by themselves.This makes a strong and resilient team that will keep on excelling, even in the toughest of times.

By: Elizabeth Shassere


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