Are you still boiling water?

By Doug Coffey

A friend of mine told me a story once describing her supervisor as a “new parent.”

I asked my friend what she meant by that.

My friend then said the following: “New parents, fearing germ contamination, will often snatch the baby’s pacifier off the floor and thrust it into a pot of boiling water, disinfecting it before putting it back in the baby’s mouth.”

Like most first-time parents, new leaders and even some seasoned ones will think that being in charge means maintaining control over everything. As a result of this thinking, they smother their subordinates with too much supervision. This deprives their employees of initiative or the opportunity to innovate and find better ways of accomplishing the mission.

Years ago, I was responsible for the Department of Defense public affairs effort during the rebuilding of Kuwait after the Gulf War in the early 1990s. It was a high visibility job with both U.S. State and Defense Department interest. I had a public affairs specialist working for me who I had given responsibility for all media activity. However, I soon realized I was micromanaging the individual.

I ended up taking on the major national media and the high visible interactions, not because I wanted or needed the attention, but because I wanted to make sure every detail went right.

It wasn’t until my teammate came to me one day, and he told me that he couldn’t work for me anymore because of my approach.

At first it shocked me. Then there was one of those too rare clarifying moments when I realized I was taking away his initiative.

There was no question that he had the best interests of the command at heart, but I wasn’t giving him the opportunity or authority to act. Just like a new parent, I was boiling water.

When I let go of control, our relationship became much more collegial, and we accomplished the mission much better together as a team.

It is not easy to give up control when you are a perfectionist, but it’s important to keep in mind your role as a leader. It is not to stifle with supervision, but to energize with enough guidance that subordinates are not afraid to take risks and take action.

You may be amazed how much can be accomplished when you stop boiling water.


Doug Coffey served 26 years on active duty in the U.S. Army with assignments in Korea, U.S. Special Operations Command, serving as a DOD spokesperson for rebuilding Kuwait and as advisor to the U.S. Army Chief of Staff. He had a civilian career as a Vice President of Communications for a defense company. He is currently the president of the Army Public Affairs Association. Follow him on LinkedIn here