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If you want others to “lean in,” you need to “lean out”

Posted April 15, 2014 • Leadership • by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.

I recently returned from a business trip in the Middle East and was reminded that leadership dilemmas don’t vary that widely from country to country, from continent to continent.

Across cultures, there’s still so much talk about getting “buy-in” and having people “step up to the plate” (yes, people use baseball metaphors in the Middle East too!). But when it doesn’t happen– when people don’t take responsibility to bring our organizations to the next level– leaders get frustrated, and rightly so.

Exasperated leaders say things like: “Why don’t they take more responsibility? I’m all alone here, trying to change this organization myself!” If you’ve ever expressed this type of sentiment, you are not alone. But not being alone in a moment like this doesn’t make it any easier. I have some advice. But first, I have some good news and some bad news.

The bad news is: It’s not only about “them.” It may be natural to blame them for not doing what you want them to do. But pointing your finger at them also isn’t going to solve your problem.

Now the good news: You have much more control here than you think you do.

Here’s my advice: Go to your nearest mirror. Stand there for a moment. Look at the person staring back at you. Ask yourself: “Can you stand back? Can you give them the space they need to step forward? Can you let them know that you’re here to support them with anything they need – advice, encouragement, ideas, resources – and that you’ll do your best to provide it so they can do their best work? Can you honestly tell them that if they take a calculated risk and fail, you’ll still support them?”

Stepping back, or “leaning out” so that others can “lean in” is one of the most difficult leadership moves you’ll ever make. It requires patience, fortitude, and most of all, TRUST in the people you’ve hired to get the job done. But the results you’ll experience will be drastic. You’ll start to see people doing great work they’ve never done before, taking risks that end up bringing plentiful rewards, and in a nutshell, “stepping up to the plate” in exactly the way you’ve wanted them to all along. All this requires is you getting out of the way. And supporting them 100% as they step up.

I look forward to hearing how it goes.