Know your Role as Leader: Mind In, Hands Off

When we’re faced with leadership challenges that don’t seem to have a solution, it can be so easy to turn to a controlling or autocratic approach. “I’ll just change the way we do things here, and even if that doesn’t fix everything, that will at least stop the bad behavior.” And yet, these autocratic ‘fixes’ can prove to be ineffective at best or have terrible unforeseen consequences at worst.

When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein worked for The Washington Post, they experienced publisher Katharine Graham’s uniquely effective leadership. The very simple description they used for her management style was this: Hands off, mind on. I now talk about leadership as Hands off, mind in.  Regardless of the language, here’s where it all comes from:

In Bob Woodward’s words:

“I was awed, supported and put on notice that she was engaged and knew the details of the stories down to the bookkeeping details of the secret Watergate cash slush fund. She wasn’t going to meddle, try to edit or second-guess, but she did, after all, want a better performance. Her skill was to raise the bar, gently but relentlessly. She did not tell us that The Post company’s TV station licenses were being challenged and that Watergate reporting could have killed the newspaper.

“It is true that Katharine Graham kept her hands off the news reporting and editing. But as important, she kept her mind on it-ferociously. As Watergate unfolded for the next 20 months, she kept us informed about what Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, was saying. If a White House official called her, she took notes and sent them on immediately. She helped us analyze the motives and knowledge of various players.” (Washington Post, July 23, 2001)

Is your mind in?

How would your team describe your managerial style? Consider your leadership and the people you most want to influence. How interested are you in the passion that fuels their work? Be interested in their challenges, familiar with the obstacles they face and how they’ve tried to overcome those obstacles. As their leader, your role is to serve as a brainstorming and analytical partner, not as the problem solver. Be so well-versed on how they have succeeded and failed that you could give someone else an update on their goals and progress without asking them for a special meeting. Be hungry for information that would support your people in achieving their goals, and make sure you are funneling that information to them

Are your hands off?

Considering the people on your team, when you learn about challenges, do you jump in to solve problems your people could probably solve themselves if they had the right resources? Delegate with ease rather than grudgingly. Trust their perspective to be informed and useful rather than insisting on decisions being made in accordance with your own perspective. Trust your people to meet their responsibilities, rather than doubting their abilities.

Perhaps you are the quality control officer for your team, but if that task is not explicitly required of you and yet you are doing it,  consider that this might be only to meet your own needs for reassurance and significance rather than the needs of the organization.

You can give yourself a quick checkup with numbers to measure where you are right now by making a list of the ten people you spend most of your time with.

For each one, reflect on their likely experience of you and score yourself on a scale of 1-10 in answer to these two simple questions:

How much do they experience you as “mind in”? How much do they experience you as “hands off”?

Don’t focus on deficits, but look for opportunities for greater effectiveness. Create an experiment or two for yourself to try that can help to improve your ability to manage “hands off, mind in.”

Situational application

If you are facing a particular challenge, that’s a good time to ask how you can live this philosophy in practical ways. 

Suppose you’ve noticed your organization has a tendency towards gossip. It isn’t done maliciously, but you can sense that information is being shared (out of concern, of course) beyond the subject’s comfort level. [Say Margaret learned about Deborah’s miscarriage and has been telling everyone to “pray for Deborah,” including all of the details about Deborah’s loss and emotional state–and you know Deborah is typically a very private person.]

What do you do? Lecture the group about the evils of gossip? Talk to Margaret about changing her behavior? What would it look like to be “mind in, hands off”?

I don’t believe a situation like this has a right answer, but I know that the question challenges me to think outside of my habits. What I would feel like doing (lecturing people about their behavior) is very different from what this philosophy challenges me to try, which might include checking in with Margaret and Deborah about what emotional needs are or are not being met by the situation, and perhaps inviting them both to a facilitated conversation in which they can hear from each other and even brainstorm what alterations could help both to feel like the needs of both women are being met (rather than one at the expense of the other).

What about you? Is there a situation you’re facing that feels insurmountable? How does “Mind in, hands off” challenge you to alter your approach? Leave me a comment below!

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