For most of my career I’ve associated with people who think for work. This thinking has taken place in quite a number of industries and environments, many that aren’t typically thought of as having knowledge workers. I’ve tripped up several times, so I’d like to share some of my personal learnings in a hope that you won’t make the same mistakes that I have. Here are 9 tips that have proven successful when I’ve been in a leadership position:

  1.      You create the vision… the team realizes it.  If you really hired the experts, then they will have better ideas than you will. Step back and let them figure it out on their own.
  2.      Teach them the principles and let them manage themselves.  Too often leaders describe where to go and how to get there, but neglect why it’s important. Good leaders consistently train on the reasons behind actions. Once employees understand the fundamentals, they will apply the principles in ways that make sense to them… and as a side bonus they will be more likely to sustain the changes they’ve made.   The Shingo Prize and the Agile Manifesto both do a great job of describing the principles behind practices and tools.
  3.      Realize you’re not the expert.  This means that you don’t need to be the best at everything. In fact, many times it is better if you obviously can’t do things as well as they can. Let them have their own areas of expertise. You’ll find that allowing them to be technical experts will result in greater respect for you as a leader. They will allow you to be an expert at leading them.
  4.      Let them think.  Thinking doesn’t really happen in meetings. Meetings are a necessary evil that should happen only when absolutely necessary. Where possible, group meetings together in order to leave plenty of large time blocks for actual work/thinking to occur.
  5.      Backup their decisions.  Once you have set the destination and taught principles, get out of the way. When they come up with a solution, support it. Even if you would do it differently (remember, you aren’t the expert), or you’re concerned that it might not work. Trust is more important than control. (check out this great video on Agile culture from Spotify)
  6.      Allow time for goofing off.  It just might surprise you, but when people are thinking they sometimes need a distraction. Instead of decreasing productivity, these distractions serve to stir the creative juices and add a component of fun to the workplace (aka more productive). Some of our team’s distractions have been jigsaw puzzles, nerf gun wars, and deep philosophical discussions.
  7.     Remove Obstacles.  Your job is to remove obstacles so they can do their jobs.
  8.      Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Let those who do the work worry about the little things. If you focus on the little things then they will think that you are just a micromanager and don’t trust them. Which in this case would probably be true. Take care of the big obstacles and the small stuff will sort itself out.
  9. You can’t really manage them, so don’t try.  It will only make things worse. Instead focus on being a servant leader by and supporting them and making their lives better.


Preston is an avid supporter of Lean and Agile and has a passion for guiding teams and organizations towards excellence.