Get out of the way and lead

Nora Akins

Most leaders have been thinking for others for decades; knowing what is best; and leading and directing others. That is what leaders do. Recent neuroscience wants to rock that boat.

A new set of leadership skills includes giving people mental space to think for themselves and helping people simplify their thinking. Leaders can start noticing the qualities of others’ thinking and help them make their own connections. That is not to say leaders can’t establish goals and boundaries. It does say leaders must allow people to come up with their own solutions rather than provide advice.

An exercise in David Rock’s book, "Quiet Leadership," is to keep count of the number of times you receive advice from others in a week and the number of times it’s useful. He believes the percentage of useful advice will be quite low. Not only does advising people use a lot of the leaders’ energy, it also prevents others from generating their own ideas. When people come up with their own idea, they are more invested in making it work.

When people think for themselves, they experience inertia due to the energy required. This is when the leader needs to avoid the desire to rescue and give people mental space. The act of arriving at one’s own answer results in energy, motivation and action to test it. When the idea is your own, you are determined to make it work.

New leaders can reinforce this new thinking with positive feedback. Trying this new technique is likely changing habits for the leaders and the employees. Neuroscience claims habits don’t change, old ones just fade away. The more energy and attention a new habit receives, the more likely it will be embedded in our brain and cause the old habit to fade. New studies show it doesn’t take time, as much as stimulation to form a new habit. This new science prescribes encouragement as the key to new neural circuitry.

Encouragement is as simple as a smile, a thumbs-up, or a verbal “That’s it.” These all work to strengthen the neural circuit. As neural circuits become strong, they become hard wired. And we have developed a new habit. Now the brain doesn’t have to use energy it required to do something new. The more attention and encouragement we give, the stronger the circuit becomes. Habits are like the deer path in my yard. The more it’s used, the wider and smoother it becomes, making it easier for deer to frequent my property without much thought.

The obstacle may be reinforcing leaders to develop the skill of allowing their people to think for themselves. Leaders have to watch and listen to their employees’ success as their reinforcement. Leaders who recognize they are tired are halfway there. Leaders who are fixing everything must recognize they are getting in the way.

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management provides management training and refines human resource systems to help employers build respectful workplaces. Reach Nora at 219 873-1735 or

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