Leadership & Autonomy

If you’ve been a follower (and most of us have), you’ve likely wished you were in charge, at least once.  “If only I was the boss….,” you’ve sighed, or whined, or screamed!

It’s so tempting, at times, to want the authority, the power, and yes, the financial rewards that comes from being “at the top.”  Sometimes, we want that so badly.  And when you vehemently oppose the direction or decisions set by a leader, that sentiment is increased tenfold.

Oh, I’ve been there…As an Army Private, I was DEFINITELY there, more times than I care to admit.  As an individual contributor large corporations, I frequently wished for more leadership authority.

“This makes no sense….,” I would say under my breath.  But I would still do it.  I was a good foot soldier.

“They have no clue…” I would mutter to myself.  Yet, I’d get the task done regardless.  I respected the position, if not the person.

“That’s an unbelievably poor leadership decision…,” I threw caution to the wind in exclaiming.  Okay, so we each have our breaking point….

But after being removed from those situations by years or even decades, it’s clear to me that what appealed to me wasn’t the power or authority of being a leader.  After all, I long ago learned the lessons of being a leader without a title, the effectiveness of influence at any level of the organization.  No, what drove me nuts (and would by characteristic alone align me with many Millenials) was the lack of autonomy in my life.  The inability to set my own direction, my own schedule, my own priorities….that’s what drove me over the edge.  That inability led me to where I am today, with a fantastic career teaching, consulting, and writing.  I have control (nearly total control) over my life and my work week now, and I truly love it.  And while it worked out wonderfully for me to reach that point, it didn’t have to be that way…..and in many organizations it wouldn’t have.

You see, I believe that nearly every employee desires autonomy, that sense that they are in control of their own contributions to a larger cause and their own sense of being as a member of a team.  Some actively pursue autonomy, but many do not.  Whether out of fear of job security, insecurity, or a sense of loyalty to an existing authority figure or structure, many acquiesce and pull up short of insisting on autonomy.

And for many leaders, allowing, nay, promoting autonomous behavior and attitudes amongst followers is scary, plain and simple.  Rendering control to followers is perceived as giving up influence, weakening power, or demonstrating ambivalent leadership.  Those perceptions do exist, however, ill-conceived they may be in leadership practice.

You see, when leaders insist that everyone behave autonomously, a few interesting results occur:

  1. Follower engagement soars!  Employees grasp ownership over their environments, their decisions, and their work outcomes.
  1. Innovation blossoms! When outcomes and results are articulated by leaders, but process for getting the desired outcomes are left up to individual employees, organizations stand a great chance to develop new efficient and effective processes.
  1. Teamwork increases!  Overwhelmingly, when individuals are granted greater autonomy, they turn to others for help for information and assistance where their own competencies are weaker.  The result can be a strong team dynamic!
  1. Productivity explodes!  The ultimate result, of course, is the bottom line, whether that is greater profits or enhanced efficiencies.

So, leaders, experiment with giving employees greater autonomy.  If you’ve got the right players on your team, giving them more control over their work, their time, and their ideas can pay great dividends.  You’ll be glad you did!

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