Sitting in the back of a freezing cold military vehicle, we are parked up on the edge of a forest.  It is the middle of the night; the skyline is lit up by moon light and there is no wind – it is deathly quiet.  It is cold because we are somewhere within the Artic Circle.  I can now hear a raised voice. 

Our new boss, Major C. is super frustrated and is berating one of my senior colleagues.  He can’t understand why we have not deployed into the wood, secured the ground, and set up our operation.  We were a squadron of experienced leaders and managers, a small (some would say important) cog within 3 Commando Brigade.  He had expected every one of us to have known our role and responsibilities and we should have acted without permission as soon as we had arrived in the forest. 

My colleague patiently explains to Major C.  that we are not bad managers, it is simply that our previous leader had insisted on making all the decisions for us and having total control. 

We were to quickly learn that our new boss ‘leans back’ and expected us to act without seeking approval or authorisation.  He trusted us to do the right thing and I never heard him raise his voice again, I don’t remember him giving many orders either, he didn’t need to.

I have always thought of myself as a sponge for leadership learning and because I got to work for some amazing people in my first career (and one of those people I still work for in this career) I was able see what worked, especially in adverse conditions.  I knew for certain this was going to be the approach I would adopt for my teams in the future.  

Leaning back was going to be an essential part of our ‘culture’ (the way we do things around here) wherever I worked.

Five things a leader who leans back does:

  1. They know what they want from their teams
  2. They recruit leaders – every team member is a leader
  3. They give control  – not take control  (and it starts with you)
  4. They lean back every day – you cannot pick and choose, with one day being autocratic and the next day you are democratic just because you feel like it!
  5. Enables and Empowers team members to use their initiative and be pro-active, to really make this principle real you need to have a ‘no blame culture’

Please note:  I often hear people say they have no blame culture, but do they?  You only have a no blame culture if you have been tested on this and you can evidence that you have it – otherwise it is just words on a piece of page.

Why be a leader that Leans Back?  Here are five reasons:

  1. What happens when you are notthere is how your leadership should be judgedIf teams and your operation doesn’t work in your absence, your leadership is failing.
  2. You can’t know all the answersor can be gifted in every aspect of your operation – allow your colleagues who have the technical skills to flourish and do their thing.
  3. One of the most important leadership responsibilitiesand this should be your chief legacy, is to bring the next leaders through.
  4. You want to get stuff doneand you want to get it done soon.
  5. Why on earth would you recruit and select outstanding people and then not allow them the freedom to make important decisions and act on them?

Fast forward 35 years from that night – I am the Managing Director and I lean back. 

So how does leaning back work in my current company work?  Dosh Ltd  is part of the Thera Group . We support adults with a learning disability.

We have a Leadership Way and we share our philosophy with each team member.  I wrote this in 2014 and it still holds true:

  • Each team member wants to make a difference in a person with learning disabilities life, and that they want to take a leadership role within the company.
  • As Leaders they want to support people to be more independent and have more control.
  • Our default position is to say ‘yes ‘and when we do this it often opens new opportunities for all.
  • We work within a culture that each of us is doing our best, so that when mistakes happen, we admit our mistake – we learn from it – I apologise – and we move on. We accept that mistakes happen, and (for Dosh) it is not about the mistake, but about how we react in a positive and urgent way to remedy whatever has gone wrong.
  • Each one of us has a sense of urgency: In Dosh we have momentum! We are successful, but we know that we will lose that if we lose our momentum
  • We all have a positive mind-set: “Optimism is True Moral Courage” – according to the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton
  • We have a passion for what we do, and we are passionate about supporting people with learning disabilities.
  • Although our team members are based across the country, they all support each other with any challenges.
  • As their Managing Director it is important to me that everyone feels invested in their work and It is something, I regularly check at the end of every 1-1 “are you still enjoying your job?”

We have self-organising teams within our company, giving control to our colleagues not taking control.  This is called Holacracy and it looks like this: Why Holacracy? – YouTube

For 2021/22 we have made 10 commitments, and this is what they are: Dosh 10 Commitments v2 – YouTube

So, do you lean back?  And if not, when will you?

Steve Raw

I was inspired to write this blog post after taking in an excellent presentation:  David Marquet speaking at the Army Leadership conference 2018