Leadership series (Part 2): Leaders should give others the freedom of making decisions

Be it in the classroom, in the workplace or within a family, those in the supervisory position should grant their charges the flexibility, freedom and autonomy to make decisions.

When children are inexperienced, their parents can nurture and guide. When a student lacks confidence, a teacher can support and advise. When a subordinate is new to an organisation’s work responsibilities, a supervisor or mentor can coach (especially when job scopes in contemporary workplaces are constantly widening, deepening, evolving and changing).

However, there should be a point in time where individuals in the supervisory position let go of the reins they have over their charges and let the latter take charge of their decision-making process – in the same way that cycling trainers let go of their hold on the bicycles of their trainees and let the latter be on their own once the they have sufficient confidence.

Of course,  the charges may disappoint, make mistakes, fumble or even fail.But the very act of making mistakes is the turning point. Or rather, the breakthrough point.

One who never makes mistakes or are never allowed to make mistakes will never learn, and therefore will never succeed. Because one will always be reliant on external parties or entities to make the decisions for them. And when one is not given the onus to make decisions, one fails to learn one of the crucial ingredients of success – the ability to take responsibility and hence the power create positive changes in society.

Take for instance, when an employee in the frontline customer service counter is not able to make timely judgment calls to remedy any potential issues with unsatisfied customers (such as providing new suits to the customer to replace existing ones if company policies allow, making an effort to check for unavailable attire which the customer wants by calling other outlets etc), the issue faced by the customer is not resolved and the dissatisfaction level of the customers will only deepen.

Is there anyone who can take charge here?” is a common question voiced by customers when every employee in the retail outlet (yes, it includes the sales manager at times) is powerless to make decisions and have to consult middle (or even senior) management for advice.

Similarly, students in literature class may asked to select a book to read over the weekends. Initially, teachers may step in to assist and guide their students on an individual level – based on their respective intellectual astuteness and academic capability (which is even more crucial in schools with “Inclusive Education Initiative“). However, after the students have a somewhat firm grasp of their interests and abilities to choose the books that they desire, teachers should give the students free reign on what they wish to read – as long as the contents of the books are beneficial to them. Not putting in the effort to enable their students to be decision-makers will only result in a consistent and endless consultation of students in this matter to no end.

Along the same vein,  more autonomy should progressively be given to children as they grow up, and the letting go of control can be considered as a technique that parents use to ensure the maturity of a child. It should be highlighted that the ability to make bigger decisions is a form of personal growth and maturity. As can be observed, from a hierarchical perspective, CEOs are usually given the ability to make major strategic decisions while managers are more concerned with the coordination of tasks and responsibilities of their subordinates.  Hence climbing the corporate ladder can also be seen as a form of personal development and self-actualisation.

However, when endeavouring to let others make the decisions, we have to put in effort to avoid three pitfalls.

Firstly, when letting others make the decisions, one’s primary objective should always be nurture and coach, and never to shed our own responsibilities. For example, a leader let others make decisions pertaining to the latter’s expertise  through delegation while leaders themselves focus on the achievement of their strategic business initiatives. Leaders should not delegate so as to resolve themselves of all business responsibilities.

Secondly,  one should only be given the autonomy to decide on things when the time is ripe. For instance, an employee should only be given the freedom to decide on the layout design of the retail outlet when he or she has a few years’ of working experiences within the store. The granting of autonomy has to be aligned with relevant experience.

Thirdly,  while granting of autonomy is important, I have to emphasise on the importance of supervision. While great leaders grant their followers and subordinates the autonomy, flexibility, freedom and option to pursue their passions and interests, accountability through timely supervision has to be in place and if this is within a corporate context, there must be alignment between the subordinates’/teams’ endeavours and the corporate goals and visions. Only then will corporate organisations flourish.

Let us now take a look at a closer look at the benefits of letting others make the decisions:

1. Confidence booster: Regardless of one’s age or social status, all if not most of us would like a confidence booster once in a while (which is a reason why “quote posters” are so popular!). And one of the best ways is to have someone grant us the autonomy of making decisions. Over time, such freedom and autonomy will give us the self-confidence to do things on our own and we mature as a result (Age does not define maturity). As long as one has developed the capability to make wise decisions that benefit others, we should be given the oppoortunity to accomplish the career and life goals we have set for ourselves. In this way, as our confidence grows, our confidence in helping others better themselves will also increase. As writer Ralph Waldo Emerson has said, “The man of genius inspires us with a boundless confidence in our own powers.” The “man of genius” here probably refers to great leaders who are able to identify the talents in others and unleash their potentials through the granting of autonomy.

2. Establish trust and respect: Granting others the freedom to make their own decisions and working towards a similar academic or corporate goal is another way that great leaders build and establish mutually strong trust and respect  between their subordinates and themselves. It is interesting to note that once mutual trust and respect is founded and sustained, increased rapport will be the result. And all these will contribute to the accomplishment of the common goal, since no man’s an island and teamwork is key to achieving something remarkable and outstanding (especially in current times). If  leaders constantly checks on their subordinates on a consistent basis, there is little or no trust – resulting in an environment filled with suspicion and doubts, an environment that is definitely not conducive to achieving high productivity. As Chinese philosopher  Lao Tsu has mentioned, “He who does not trust enough, will not be trusted“. Great leaders have to trust in order for their subordinates to trust them in return.

3.  Opportunity for excellence, and hence recognition: A student or employee cannot be assessed for his or her strengths if their strengths are not identified in the first place. And to identify their talents and abilities, students and employees should be placed in scenarios where they are able to make decisions for themselves. The decisions that they are making is a gauge of their creative and analytical thinking skills – accurate benchmarks of their capabilities.  Only when they have exhibited their ability to excel and shine will recognition be bestowed upon them. Great leaders have no fear of letting their followers shine or even surpass them as the leaders know that the greatest leaders often nurture the most excellent successors. As spiritualist Swami Sivananda has said, ” Humility is not cowardice. Meekness is not weakness. Humility and meekness are indeed spiritual powers.” And when students and employees understand that their teachers and employers are allowing them to shine, they will usually work doubly or even triply hard to repay their teachers and employers respectively – out of gratitude. As the saying goes, kindness begets kindness.

4. Reduction of workload so leaders can concentrate on what’s important: Delegating the responsibility of decision-making to others is not a way to shed oneself of greater responsibility. If this is indeed the reason, then the partnership between leaders and their subordinates will not be cohesive or amiable. However, if the leaders are genuine in nurturing their subordinates, the latter will feel it and work even harder than – as they are appreciative of their leaders. At the same time, the leaders are able to free up their time to focus and concentrate on what they do best:  developing the corporate or team vision, as well as strategising solutions to achieve them.  When leaders are focused on the big picture while his subordinates are concentrating on the achievements of corporate-directed goals,  their organisations will move forward smoothly. However, there might exists certain subordinates who are more suited for middle or senior management levels. These subordinates should be groomed to leadership positions soonest possible or there is a high probability that they might leave over time, as their talents exceed their work responsibilities, thereby stifling their creativity. This is when brain drain happens.

5. Build a strong and decisive team (Napolean Hill’s “Mastermind Group”): When a study or work group is formed, the most productive and efficient group is one whereby all members have an implicit understanding that each of them are granted the autonomy to perform at their best in the most appropriate ways possible. There are minimal restrictions or bureaucracy involved and that all members have the flexibility to do their best. And when a mistake is made, members should not have to possess any fear of repercussions but understand that the group works under the philosophy of forgiveness, mutual understanding and support (However, care must be taken not to repeat the mistake again, no matter how minor they are.  The causes of inadvertent mistakes should also be looked into and eradicated.)   Here is an interesting and inspiring TED talk by one of Google’s earliest engineers, Chade-Meng Tan:


6. Speed and Mobility: Another example of such leadership style is one adopted by Napolean Bonaparte. In Robert Greene’s “33 Strategies of War“, he mentioned about the fact that Napolean’s troops excel through speed and mobility. This article draws a strong co-relation between Google and Napolean’s leadership style:

An interesting quote from the article is as follows:

He would break his large army up into small, fast-moving divisions. He would give the field marshals who led these divisions complete freedom to make decisions in the moment, without having to consult him. This could lead to some chaos, but he enjoyed the room for creativity that came with it. He encouraged soldiers on all levels to show initiative, and gave them the chance to rise from the bottom to the top–as he had done.

An interesting term “Napoleonic Model” was ascribed to Google in the article. An interesting quote from the article is as follows:

“Like Napoleon (who had risen from the bottom of the French army), the two founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, came from a radically different background than your average CEO. They were scientists at Stanford, their field being statistics and probability. In founding Google in the late 1990s, based around their innovations in the field of search engines, they came to several important conclusions: the Internet is going to radically alter the business environment. The world is entering a new era–the Information Age. They wanted their company to reflect these changes. They needed to create their own business and organizational model. And so they studied in depth how other businesses operated, particularly in technology, to see if there were lessons to be learned. ..

To Page and Brin, a company in this new environment had to be lean and fast, able to stay ahead of the innovation cycle and adapt quickly to trends. They had to build a new kind of structure. This governed most of their key organizational decisions. They would not produce any content; Google would serve as a platform for others to create or move content, enhancing the flow of information. They would have no editorial staff. To make money, they would sell advertising space, but all of this would be automated. Customers would buy through a self-serve platform. This allowed Google to have a minimal sales staff. Any kind of feedback or data on advertising sales could flow directly and immediately to anyone within the company–there were no bottlenecks from within to slow down the flow of information.

Google would have a relatively small staff of engineers. They would hire the best but keep the numbers down. They predicated this all on their philosophy of release often, release early. They would not spend months perfecting their latest product–in fact they would release it in a beta version and let the customers help improve it with their feedback. This meant no marketing or sales team to push the new product. This would also help them to develop close ties to their client base and make people feel involved in the process.

As a result of all this, the company would need far fewer managers to keep Google running. As far as possible, employees would be self-managed

In addition, Google created a completely different culture. The company was broken down into small units that could be self-managed. They created the 20% rule: all employees must devote 20% of their time to creating something of their own–a pet project, an innovative idea that could later fit into Google or, if not, could be taken elsewhere. Periodically small teams of peers would review these projects and critique them…

The culture was centered around the idea that Google was the spearhead of a revolution: this was the company that was going to give the world access to information, to everything going on in the world and allow people to make what they wanted with it. This sense of being part of a cause created an extremely motivated workforce that does not need to be policed by teams of managers. A degree of chaos is allowed for and even encouraged.

Another key observation that was made in the article:

“This then is the point that we have reached: What is really changing in the world is not technology, or the globalization of capital, but the relationships between people–relationships that were once hierarchical and based on the force of authority. This has been radically flattened. What matters most now are the connections between people, the interdependencies and networks that can be formed and the unimpeded flow of information. “

In a world dominated by technology, a large investment in strategic management may be the panacea to our current world’s problems. And for such an investment to take place, autonomy and a strong receptivity in allowing the talents of others to flourish and bloom is one crucial ingredient to its success. No single leader can have the answer to everything. All of us needs guidance and support one time or another. Employees need to make themselves valuable and relevant by constant upgrading of their knowledge and skills in order to beat the onset of “technological unemployment” and be a step ahead in organisations’ constant competitive search for talents.  The next wave of knowledge workers who will thrive will be those with strong intellectual faculties and creative prowess.

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