Eyes On, Hands Off: How to empower your team and get out of their way

By Chris Fussell, Partner and co-founder of the McChrystal Group Leadership Institute and former US Navy SEAL

Battle of Trafalgar

While Admiral Lord Nelson may be one of the western world’s most famous military leaders, how many of us know that for much of the battle of Trafalgar, he was incapacitated?

Yes, shot by a sniper at the outset of the battle, Nelson died three hours later as his well-trained fleet went on to defeat the Franco-Spanish armada. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned — and losing their commander in the opening minutes of the fight — Nelson’s fleet won the day without losing a single ship.

Every leader should strive to create this level of independence and self-sufficiency in their organization, as it is the key differentiator of a truly effective and high-performing team. This can seem an impossible task when many managers and leaders struggle to leave their teams or colleagues even for a week of vacation completely unplugged, never mind for a make-or-break strategic event. Unfortunately for those looking for a quick fix, this is not an organizational trait that can be built overnight with a workshop or with the implementation of a simple process. There are however a few steps that all leaders can take to begin their team’s journey towards one of operational independence.

Commit to creating an environment of de-centralized empowerment.

Oftentimes leaders believe they want to create a flexible and high-performing team, however balk at the realities of doing so. You are, quite literally, trying to work your way out of your job by creating a team that doesn’t need you in the way that you are used to. This is an uncomfortable journey, and before you embark on it be sure you are ready for the outcome. It helps to be clear on your objectives for this shift. Most leaders will want their team to be moving faster, making better decisions, and doing so more independently. But why? Is it to give you bandwidth to focus on more strategic aims? To enable them to better serve clients and customers? To help them grow and be prepared for the next step in their careers (enabling you to take the next step on yours)? Your reasons may be a combination of the above, but keep in mind that you are starting a journey to unleash your team’s capability to accomplish this objective. It’ll be hard, but it’s time to get out of their way.

Clearly message your new expectations for your team.

In the military we are taught that if you give an order once, your team will always wait for you to give that order in the future. Just as this journey is going to be uncomfortable for you as a leader, it will be uncomfortable for a team that has grown used to the existing way of doing things. Your team needs to understand not only that your expectations for them have changed, but why it’s important and that you are prepared for them to make mistakes. Ahead of the battle of Trafalgar, Nelson told his captains that “no man can do very wrong who places his ship alongside that of the enemy”. By providing clear objectives for your team, and setting guardrails for how they get there, you will set them on the path to success.

Connect your team with each other and incorporate them into the broader network across your business or market.

As a leader you sit at a different level of perspective from your team, either with line of sight higher and across the organization structure or connected at more senior levels with your clients and partners. You need to create a team that is capable of replicating, and then improving, on your own level of perspective and has access to the same resources (strategic context, knowledge, connections) that you have. This is accomplished in two discrete steps.

1. Bring your team together more often and reinforce an environment of trust and common purpose, creating a network which understands the challenges their colleagues are facing and proactively supports each other in achieving the goals of the team. Whether you re-purpose an existing forum or create a new one, intentionally bring together your extended leadership team on a more regular and frequent basis to force connectivity and re-alignment. This will set the conditions to remove your role of connector and decision-maker for inter-team decisions.

2. Create opportunities for your team to connect with, and learn from, individuals across your organization and in your clients, partners, and key external organizations (even competitors). Encourage your team to share and discuss their new perspectives because, in aggregate, it will drastically increase your team’s understanding of its operating environment and enable informed decision making. Importantly, this will remove you as a bottleneck for information from outside the team, and will set conditions for a team that is prepared to understand and act on external strategic pressures and opportunities.

Teach your team how to think, not what to do.

Now that you have plugged your team into the broader network you previously controlled access to, you need to build their capability to filter the signal from the noise and then take action. Your own ability to do so is why you’re in a position of leadership, and was likely hard won through the experiences you’ve had and the mistakes you’ve made. Before you can trust your team to make decisions better than you would have, you need to build their capability to connect the dots. Use the increased visibility and transparency you have created within your team to demonstrate the “why” behind the decisions you make. Think out loud, demonstrating how you process information and consider the nuance and bigger picture in your decision-making process. General McChrystal took the Joint Special Operations Task Force on a similar journey, and it quickly became apparent to us that sharing more information wasn’t enough. By consistently demonstrating how senior leaders made decisions, operators on the ground were empowered with the wisdom, context, and information to make better decisions on their own, faster than ever before.

Maintain an “eyes on, hands off” style of leadership.

There is clearly risk associated with empowering your team to make more and faster decisions at a lower-level than was previously the norm. As you take your hands off the wheel, you need to be more vigilant and aware than ever about the decisions your team is making. Provide your team with guidance on the decisions that you want to maintain, and then expect them to handle the rest by leveraging their increased connectivity internal and external to their team. Encourage an environment of transparency where the expectation is for people to be self-aware of when they need help, and are comfortable asking for it. Use every challenge your team faces as an opportunity for organizational learning, and you will quickly build trust in this new way of working.

Nelson and his fleet had spent years setting the conditions for success at Trafalgar, and your team’s journey will be neither short nor easy. In today’s increasingly complex environment however, it’s no longer an option to maintain the simple and comfortable command-and-control style of leadership. Leaders must change their role from that of an arbiter and a decision-maker to that of a gardener, setting the conditions for your team to grow and be successful and nurturing them on their journey.


With contributions from Ryan Flynn, Principal at McChrystal Group.