Let Your People Lead

I love history, and I recently came across this fabulous quote from General George Patton:

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

Yes, it seems simple, but the important question is whether you practice this wisdom in your leadership.

I regularly interact with business owners, partners and executives – so-called leaders – and they uniformly tell me that they empower their people – that they let their people do their jobs. However, when I start to peek under the covers (and actually talk to their people), I often uncover that their leadership reality is different. While they claim to empower rather than directing their people, they most often tell their people what do to AND how to do it.

One of the things I regularly share with leaders is that their positional power often leads to directive leadership rather than their desired empowering leadership. Here are several different examples of ways that leaders respond and disempower their people when a team member comes to them with an idea, suggestion or solution:

  • “Have you thought about this way of doing it?”
  • “That’s a good idea, but have you thought about this way of doing it?”
  • “Here’s how I would do it, but you do what you want”

While the leader’s responses seem to have some openness to the team member’s idea or approach, the positional power behind their response is often heard as a directive, and following the leader’s idea is certainly the safest approach.

That’s what I love about Patton’s comment: “Tell [your people] what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” Inherent in this mindset is trusting your people and allowing them to make mistakes. As I often tell leaders, many times your team member’s ideas may not be the same as yours (or as good), but their ideas need to be good enough some or most of the time. Otherwise, they will stop creating, solving and figuring things out. Instead, they’ll just do what you tell them to do.

If your people are not solving, creating and initiating on their own, take a closer look at the ways you’re communicating with them and responding to their ideas. If you are a leader – a true leader – you’ll make it clear to them that you want them to be their own leader, tell them what you want accomplished and let them surprise you.

When your people surprise you, you know you’re leading. When you choose not to tell your people how to do it, you’re allowing them to lead. When you choose not to direct, you are growing your people. Are you ready to let your people lead?

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Business development – Closeup of hands holding seedling in a group


  1. I love this. My company recently adopted the Vision Statement “We Empower the Ambitious to Become the Accomplished” and this dovetails nicely. Team members cannot rise to become leaders if they are consistently told HOW to do their jobs. As a leader, its important to manage the expectations, but not necessarily to govern the process.

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