Life Wise Hints

Self-directed leadership

When I started my professional life as a social worker back in the 1980s, I did not know much about self-directed leadership. Learning was through books or articles in libraries or bought in a book shop. Back then there were no computers, no emails and generally a lack of information. Any mail was filtered and controlled by the manager of my workgroup. She decided what information would be of interest to the rest of us. It was then placed on a clipboard and circulated from one person to the other. At the time team members were reliant on our manager and it shaped our behaviour in the workplace.

Today, in 2019, we have an overabundance of information through emails, the postal service, the internet, magazines, newspapers, books and the list goes on. If we want information about a subject, we can generally find it, quickly. Our behaviour is shaped differently in this technological age. Yet, has it changed the way we rely on others for answers in the workplace?

As I took on more responsibility when in my varying work roles, I read widely about leadership. You would have heard the debate about whether leaders are born or whether it is a learnt behaviour. The general consensus is that everyone can be a leader, as leadership can be taught.

However, I also have the view that some characteristics are natural to the person and there are individuals who find it easier to lead than others. There are charismatic people, charismatic leaders and they draw people in. They say and do the right things to make the person feel good about themselves. For those of us who are old enough to have lived through the 1970s we know about what happened under the charismatic leadership of Jim Jones. The Peoples Temple movement started off innocently enough with biblical based teachings in the 1950s (USA). However, by 1978 with the group now living in north western Guyana Jones’ followers were coerced into drinking a poisonous potion. He had convinced them that life ‘on the other side’ was better than life in the ‘here and now’. Over 900 people, including children, died. Why? They did not think for themselves. They found themselves in a state of groupthink: the leaders decisions were right; the leader can do no wrong. It is a tragic story based on fear all because people did not think for themselves.

When we don’t think for ourselves, we are always looking to others to tell us what to do. There is a difference between seeking advice from others versus doing what others tell us they think is the right thing to do. It is better if we combine advice with the information we have and make our own decision. There are many pitfalls when we allow others to think for us, rather than think for ourselves.  

The more experience I had in my social work life I found that others were relying on me for advice about what to do. Because our work life was so busy, I fell into the trap of telling my team members what to do. I knew the policy and practice, what would work and what was less likely to work. It was just easier. Later I realised that there was no personal growth or learning for team members who would come to seek my advice about a casework matter. This is when I moved to a self-directed leadership style.

Improving thinking

The only way we will improve our thinking is when we think for ourselves and encourage others to think for themselves.  That does not mean there is no exchange about the likely scenarios when thinking through a problem. Encouraging others to think through the possibilities when solving a problem enhances their problem-solving ability. Asking other to think for themselves in the workplace is a change management process. It shifts the behaviour of reliance on others to reliance on and thinking for self.

Building resilience and motivation

There is no better way to build resilience in a workplace than getting people to believe in themselves and their own ability to think things through. To help others believe they have the capacity to engage with their own thoughts and identify options builds resilience and workplace competencies. When people come up with their own ideas it is very empowering. Self-directed learning leads people to different pathways of learning and increases motivation.

Transference of energy

When I was at work, thinking and telling others what to do, I thought this was a good method as it saved time. However, I was wrong. It took energy away from me. Also, there were times when a team member would come and download all the problems that they were responsible for and walk away feeling great. Now that I knew all about the problem the problem-solving was transferred to me. It was my responsibility to do all the thinking, to find a solution and get back to them. Instead of the worker thinking through the issues and bringing me the solutions I had to meet again with them to tell them the way forward!

Time to reset

It took a while, but I realised that I was not the source of all wisdom and that I had to teach people to think for themselves. Not that they would always get it right, but it had to start at that point. Therefore, when a team member would come to me asking me what to do next, I would hold back sharing my knowledge or experience and ask them what they thought they should do. I asked them if they could give me a few scenarios to answer their own question. If an employee has reliance on a manager for their thinking, they will never grow themselves. Independent thinking is better than dependent thinking for growth in the workplace.

Self-directed leadership in motion

One thing I learnt in leadership roles at work was to avoid the corridor conversation. This was when a team member would tell me about a problem with a casework matter when we met in the corridor. Now that I knew about it, they felt better and they left it with me to think through the issue and work out how we could fix it! I got caught up in the game of passing the baton in the corridor. It didn’t take me long to learn that I had to quickly pass the baton back. It was my responsibility to encourage the team member to think through the situation and find solutions. It was the only way forward that would build their professional knowledge and experience.

Working with a self-directed leadership style builds a more confident, competent and skilled workforce. After individuals reach this plateau and can think for themselves they are able to mentor others to use the principles of self-directed leadership. If you are still in the workforce you might like to try self-directed leadership for a change, if it is not something you already practice.

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