Written by Bevin Theodore

Anyone can be a leader. All it takes is a passion for extraordinary results. But deciding to be an exemplary leader is only the first step to becoming one. So how will YOU do it? In “The Leadership Challenge,” James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner outline the characteristics and frequent behaviors of strong leaders. Presented as The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, the actions provide a roadmap to help leaders build trust, engage their teams and achieve shared success. This blog, the fourth in a five-part series, focuses on the practice “Enable Others to Act.”  Part 1 explores Model the Way, Part 2 Inspire a Shared Vision and Part 3 Challenge the Process.


Leaders must learn early on how to delegate and trust that others will get the job done. It is neither practical nor wise to do every single task yourself, and that is why there are teams, so everyone can take responsibility and work on individual pieces of the common goal. Of course, assigning the work is just the first step. Do you parcel out tasks then you lean over your employees’ shoulders or micro manage while they complete the projects? Do you require the work be completed the same way you would tackle it? You might think this is leading, or even managing, to tell professional employees they must adhere to a specific protocol that mirrors your own, but the message employees receive is that they are not trustworthy or competent enough to handle the assignment without interference. And if you have team members who work in remote locations, it is not even possible to provide this level of daily oversight for every single task.

If you want to forge strong bonds of trust and respect with your employees and coworkers, you must give them latitude to work the way that makes sense for them. Some people like to plot out an entire project with outlines and specific mini-deadlines along the way, while others like to create a general framework but leave more room for flexibility. Some people work better in the morning, while others thrive on late night hours. Some need a very quiet environment and might benefit from working remotely at times, while others prefer bustling surroundings. If the work gets accomplished on time and meets the agreed-upon level of excellence, it is your job as a leader to respect the differences in work styles and allow your employees the space they need to set their own calendars. Your job is to share all the pertinent information, make resources available, set appropriate check-in times then step back and watch your team shine.

I was once asked during a job interview what I did not like in a manager or a work environment. I responded that I bristle at being micromanaged and that I prefer to be given clear objectives then left to my own devices to finish the work. The interviewer laughed, hired me and never once made me feel smothered while I worked there. It allowed me to experiment with diverse ways to complete projects without having someone else telling me how they needed to get done. I knew that if I had any questions or needed input, I could talk to my supervisor, but I was more confident and a more effective employee because I had the freedom I craved.

The easiest way to determine the work environment or style your employees prefer is to ask them or to do a behavioral assessment such as DISC. As a leader, you already know the importance of actively listening to diverse points of view and treating everyone with dignity and respect. You realize the need to develop cooperative relationships with others in the workplace. And you want your team members to grow in their positions by learning new skills and developing themselves. The best way to show that you are invested in your employees is to give them the freedom to decide how to accomplish their work, give them the training or education they may need and support the decisions they make. This shows not only that you care but that you are confident they can succeed without any micromanagement and that you know how to “Enable Others to Act.”

You might worry that allowing too much freedom will mean deadlines are not met, the team falls short of its goals and you look like an inefficient boss. But giving people the opportunity to make decisions about their work not only shows that you trust them, it encourages accountability. You will find that when people take ownership of a project and feel empowered to approach it their own way, they will feel less pressured and produce better outcomes. Better individual results lead to stronger team results, which make everyone happy. Employees who feel like their voices are heard and that they are appreciated for what they bring to the team will also be more inclined to work with others on cross-functional solutions, rather than reverting to the negative “That’s not my job” approach.

You might encounter some initial resistance with people who have never been given the opportunity to voice opinions or make decisions without a manager’s input. You can help them overcome their trepidation by encouraging the free exchange of ideas, asking questions of people more reticent to speak up and bringing your team together for role play scenarios, to show them that they already have the skills they need. You can help your employees develop confidence by demonstrating that everyone’s input matters and that you do not expect them to be clones of you or each other. Every time you let someone on your team make a decision that is different from how you would handle the same situation, you boost confidence, build resilience and highlight collaboration over competition. In short, you foster an environment where everyone feels empowered to lead.

Are you ready to “Enable Others To Act”?  Learn all 5 Practices of Exemplary Leadership and the supporting behaviors.  Join Northstar Women leaders for the first Leadership Challenge exclusively for women coming soon.  Or hold a workshop at your organization to teach your leaders The Leadership Challenge. Claim your seat at the table by contacting Julie McGee at 610-984-5637 or sign up online.