Limiting managers and liberating leaders

Image from Public Domain Pictures

During more than 40 years of employment in large organisations I encountered two kinds of people in authority.* There were the limiting managers who dictated and directed what I should be doing and there were the liberating leaders who gave me space to discover for myself how I should be doing things. The limiting managers monitored my work and chastised me when I didn’t measure up to their standards, while the liberating leaders gave me space to achieve my own goals and praised me when I succeeded. It was working with the liberating leaders that I began to discover my true potential, because they gave me freedom to explore my personal potential and develop my role.

Limiting managers tend to dictate what their teams are doing often ignoring the talent within the team. Those who exert power over their workforce in this way do so out of a need to meet specific targets they have set, or have had set for them by their own managers. If they have no trust in their team they may adopt an autocratic style that is controlling, with little space offered for the team to experiment and innovate. This hierarchical style of management is focused on controlling the behaviour and direction of a team that has been compared to driving a team of horses.

Compliance is demanded and such obedience means there is only one direction and goal that can be expected. Little deviation from the set course is possible, and each member of the team is compelled to move at the same speed. The team is therefore limited to the pace of its weakest member and there is no latitude for personal innovation or extemporisation. This is comforting for limiting managers who lack confidence or fear uncertainty, because progress can be constantly monitored and controlled.

Conversely, liberating leaders often allow their team to diversify and to innovate. These leaders allow their team members to run free within wider boundaries. They acknowledge that a team consists of individuals with unique attributes who are able to share their knowledge, skills and expertise. This style of leadership values the diverse expertise and knowledge of the team and naturally creates opportunities for multiple perspective to be considered. Decisions are often made democratically where leaders see multiple possibilities due to the diverse nature of the views represented within the team. Their role is to ensure the team reaches its goals.

Liberating leaders do not drive from behind, but lead from the front. They allow their team latitude to create spaces for new ways of thinking, knowing and doing. The strength of the entire team is focused on moving forward and the pace of progress is diverse. To be a leader requires an open mind and a confidence in the team that derives from openness and flexibility. Liberating leaders are more focused on finding the best impetus for their organisation where creative play and exploration around problems can result in more sustainable progress. Leaders trust their teams to do what is best for the organisation, and there is power sharing across the workspace.

As Julian Stodd recently wrote, there is a need for trust within organisational structures. Without this form of social understanding, there will be no equity, and certainly no capability to innovate and transform. The liberating leader recognises this and creates the conditions in which it can be achieved.

*This is a simplistic binary explanation of a complex human phenomenon, but I use it here as a device to highlight and explore the power structures and practices observed in many large organisations.

Creative Commons License
Limiting managers and liberating leaders by Steve Wheeler was written in Singapore and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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