Productive Leaders

Ph.D., CSP, CDR, US Navy Ret.,
CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame

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baby feet

Why Your Leadership Instincts are Wrong

I was talking with a Dad of one of the kids on my Little League team the other day about his children. He is struggling because he wants to give his children a wonderful childhood, but he wants them to be generous and appreciate what they receive. He doesn’t want to raise self-centered adults. He wants his children to be successful in what they are doing now and successful when they are older. He and his wife are arguing because they disagree about how much they should let the kids do on their own, where they as parents need to step in to make it easier on the kids, how to protect the kids from being hurt, as well as the other aspects of what constitutes good parenting.

Do you give your kids the answers or do you have them look it up? Do you help with homework by giving them the answers because it goes faster, or do you encourage them to work through the problems? Do you catch your kids every time they stumble, or do you let them fall so they can pick themselves back up?

Our instinct, of course, is to make it easier on those we care about. That might be exactly the wrong approach.

Good leaders care about their employees. They don’t want their people to experience disappointment or failure. So leaders often struggle, like my friend, with how much we should do to help our people, whether we should intervene to show them how to make their jobs easier, and whether we should give them easy answers.

Our instinct is to help when we can and do what we can to alleviate others’ struggles, and provide answers when we know them.

This instinct may be exactly wrong.

Think about a baby learning to walk. They crawl, try to stand, fall, and try again. Very few babies think, “Hey, this walking thing is just not working for me. I am going to stick with crawling.” My sister’s daughter used my dog, Dolly, as she learned to walk. She grabbed handfuls of Dolly’s fur in her little toddler hands and used Dolly as a ladder to stand. Then Dolly would try to walk away and my niece’s little feet would move to stay with the dog. My niece’s dog-enabled walking attempts resembled a drunk man trying to hang on to the side of a moving train.

My niece, like most babies, continued to try and eventually succeeded. When we rush in to pick them up or carry them all the time, they will not learn to walk on their own.

But it is tough to watch.

We don’t like failure and frustration.

Have you gotten a new phone lately? As you transitioned to the new device, did you experience frustration? I did. The new operating system meant some of the features I use daily had a different interface. More than once I reminisced about my old phone. It was annoying until I learned the new procedures.

Sometimes we have to let people try so they learn how to do things on their own. Even when it means mistakes will happen. Even when it is tough to watch. Even when you can carry them.

Leading means letting people learn.


  1. Laurie Mays

    I so agree, Mary! I tell my manager’s that taking on too much responsibility not only overloads them, but also prevents the staff from growing. Delegate to them, show them what to do and then let them succeed! I believe that staff feel a stronger sense of ownership when they are trusted to get the job done!

    • Mary Kelly

      Thank you, Laurie! You are so right! How else can people learn if we don’t let them? You are doing awesome work!
      Warmly, Mary

    • Mary Kelly

      Laurie! You are so kind! You are such a great manager and leader! I look forward to your next blog article!
      Thank you!
      Warmly, Mary


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