Conventional wisdom says that good leaders delegate important tasks to capable people and then get out of the way. Getting results while getting out of the way leads to better outcomes, builds capacity, and fosters individual and organizational growth. This is generally accepted as “good leadership.”
Conventional wisdom also says that leaders who don’t get out of the way are “micromanagers.” The result? Undernourished and stunted organizations.
My experience is that, in some cases, those labeled as micromanagers are exactly what the label infers: uninspiring leaders without the capacity or maturity to delegate and get out of the way. Neither their knowledge nor their contributions are exceptional. They are micromanagers because they are insecure and fearful, and are perceived as such by their staff.
Coaching can lead to change, but sometimes it can’t—and the result can be a separation, or demotion, and a lot of unhappiness all around.
But what if, in some cases, the “micromanagers” are something else entirely? What if the micromanager label is misapplied? Or is misleading?
The Highly Involved Leader
We have also encountered leaders with a “highly involved” style who shouldn’t be dismissed as un-evolved or destructive. They are essential to their organizations, as sources of knowledge, creativity, energy, and vision. Their cognitive abilities, passion for the cause, and energy levels are extraordinary.
And their urge to be involved is irresistible. They think, Why should I remove myself from something that matters a lot, where I will improve the outcome? How could that possibly make us better off?
These leaders are not ignorant of conventional leadership theory – they’ve read the articles, they’ve been to leadership class. They just seem to be wired this way. We have seen several try valiantly to be more “hands-off”, less “micromanaging”—and for some, their reward was stress-related medical problems.
Further, they often believe that their highly involved style provides learning opportunities for others, as it puts them in a position to teach. They believe that the teaching will result in organizational and individual growth – which is, ironically, exactly what micromanagement supposedly disables.
A common downside is that they are often intolerant of anything or anyone that asks them to slow down. This impatience will cause these leaders to be less likable. The result is that most of their support is based entirely on their knowledge and competence, and less on relational loyalty.
For the organization, this is an entirely different animal than the traditional micromanager. The risks and rewards posed by this type of leader are much more significant and complex.
A Liberating Reframe
The leaders we call “highly involved” are not motivated by insecurity or fear—they are motivated by achievement and ambition. And yet, organizations typically respond using the conventional wisdom about micromanagement, believing that the leader’s behavior is dysfunctional and should be fundamentally changed.
Because the leader is generally understood to be very important, ejecting him or her is not an option. Armed only with the “micromanager” frame, people will feel frustrated, powerless, and victimized. Creative energy will be put into coping tactics. Complaining about it becomes validated by the culture of the organization. This set of dynamics is then what becomes truly dysfunctional.
But the Highly Involved Leader can be addressed much more effectively. Accepting the leader for who he or she is—rather than as “the problem”—is a good place to start.