Wouldn’t it be great to own a magical device that would tell you, the leader, when to take charge and when not to? This device would be what I call a Step-in Step-out Meter (SISOM).
Experienced high road leaders already have their own SISOM. Emerging leaders are in the process of building their own.
Why should a leader not automatically lead?
My own emerging leaders, Naomi and Rafael, remind me why every time I am with them. They are always exploring their world. They spend the day practicing skills and activities they have mastered and trying out all sorts of new things.
As their mentor, i.e., grandfather, I carefully watch over the new encounters we have together. Each one could contain a pitfall or hazard that Rafael or Naomi is totally unaware of. I know what they are but I would stunt their growth if I failed to let them explore. I can “see” their brains at work trying to figure out each new and exciting (to them) event. I anticipate the moves they could make and protect them from any danger. Naomi and Rafael gain valuable experiences without incurring any harm.
Occasionally one grandchild will do something that I did not anticipate that causes some momentary minor concern such as falling over or bumping an elbow or head. And I am there to immediately comfort them so they can still revel in their discovery.
Back to You
As a mentor to emerging leaders and as a leader of others, you need to follow this practice. With your vast experience and wisdom you know the potential hazards and pitfalls in the realm you operate in. You may not know the specific risk but your radar picks up its existence.
To help members of your team gain confidence while growing their wisdom, you must let them explore and fail, which leads to more exploration and success. This is where you must step aside and let them build their own leadership muscles. If you purposely prevent them from exploring or provide them with the answer, you are not being a high road leader. Let your SISOM be your guide.
SISOM Building Tools
The high road leader employs three tactics to help their people grow and to prevent others from stunting an emerging leader’s growth. These three actions develop the Step-in Step-out Meter. The high road mentor:
1. Uses questions to spark thinking and critical analysis.
2. Asks “what-if” repeatedly.
3. Plays the devil’s advocate.
All three tools are related to one another, yet each has a specific purpose. You may be familiar with the tools from personal experience, but here is a refresher on these valuable tools so you can teach the emerging leader to use them.
1. Use Questions to Spark Thinking and Critical Analysis
Many people have been spoiled and harmed by people and pseudo leaders who thought for them. As leader one of your major responsibilities is to encourage and support while requiring that people think for themselves.
Your tool for creating autonomy is to ask lots of open-ended questions. You must resist the natural urge to tell others what to do. Open-minded questions place the person’s attention to where you want it to be. Often the reason the emerging leader does not do critical thinking is their fragile ego. They either do not want to make a mistake or they believe they should already know the answer, and is too embarrassed let you know that they do not know.
Case Study – Mentoring Lisa
You want Lisa, an emerging leader, to adequately prepare for tough questions at an upcoming board meeting.
“Lisa, the board will be asking you questions about what your team is up to and what it has accomplished so far. Be prepared to answer these six questions…”
This approach makes you feel powerful but does not support Lisa in leadership empowerment because you are thinking for her.
High Road Approach
“Lisa, it’s been my experience that the board wants to know if and feel confident that you are on top of things. If you were on the board, what would you want to know about your team and what it has accomplished so far?”
[Let her respond, ask more questions and offer suggestions if she is unable to arrive at answers that would satisfy the board.]
“Lisa, what do you think the board might be worried about regarding your team’s activities, especially when you inform them that the software implementation is two months behind? What do you think their response will be to this unfortunate news?”
[Again, you engage in a dialog that supports her and ensures she can answer appropriately and confidently.]
“Lisa, there is strong possibility that the Chairman might ask you pointed questions. How would you respond to her direct questions in a way that does not appear to be a self-serving answer or avoiding responsibility?”
[If Lisa is unable to respond or feeling a little intimidated, you could role play with her, first with you as the Chairman and then with her as the Chairman and you as Lisa.]
Notice: You did not give Lisa answers or tell her what to say. You started out using general questions, then went into specific questions to help her prepare.
2. Ask “What-if” Repeatedly
As a leader grows their skills, they learn over time to expect the unexpected. But this can be a painful process for you and them.
High Road Approach
“Lisa, what if the board chairman is dissatisfied with your project’s timeline? How would you respond?”
“What if the board treasurer inquires about the extra $14,000 you spent last month? How would you answer his question?”
“Lisa, let’s say that the board believes your team needs to be more productive. Tell me how you would respond to this feedback.”
With each question, you ask Lisa to put herself in a place that she might not have gone on her own. Your intent as a high road mentor is to guide her to being well prepared. She may never receive those tough questions, but with her thorough preparation she will be able to answer any tough question with more confidence.
3. Play the Devil’s Advocate
Playing the devil’s advocate is putting yourself in a position to be both critical and supportive at the same time.
Supporting and Critiquing Lisa
“Lisa if I were the board chairman, I would be extremely upset with your overspending and lack of progress. What good news would you give me to balance out the bad news?”
“I feel the board treasurer’s concerns abut your team’s lack of progress in the final phase of implementation are justified. Convince me why you still need three more months. Describe for me the additional benefits of taking the extra time to complete this properly.”
“Lisa, assume we are in your next performance evaluation and I am critiquing you on your team’s progress so far. What advice should I give you? If you are me, what sort of rating would you give yourself on your performance as team leader?”
In the End
The mentors I recall with fondness are those who pointed me to the high road with subtle suggestions and powerful questions. The managers who told me exactly what to do and how to do it are missing from my “Favorite Bosses” list.
As mentor to emerging leaders and as a current leader, you need to know when to take charge and when not to. You developed your own Step-in Step-out Meter by employing these three tools available to all high road leaders:
- Using questions to spark thinking and critical analysis.
- Asking “what-if” repeatedly.
- Playing the devil’s advocate.