Leading people: The art of relinquishing power

Know when it's time to step aside and let your team make the decisions.

I was talking to the chair of a charity last week who was in despair at the fact that her chief executive simply would not let go and allow his team to make decisions.

It got me thinking about what letting go actually means. It's really about giving up power. It reminded me of a Sunday Times lecture I attended at the Albert Hall in 1994, where former South African president FW de Klerk was the speaker. He had just handed over power to Nelson Mandela. I went to the lecture with a closed mind and an assumption about what kind of man he was, but came away having learned a very powerful and important lesson.

A mighty thing

The lesson was that it is harder to relinquish power than it is to fight for it. This is not to be dismissive of the socio-political context surrounding the release of Mandela - or to underestimate the agonies of those who fought for change; nor indeed to underplay the part that de Klerk had in that particular regime. But it is to recognise that by willingly letting go of power, knowing full well that he would never retain the presidency in a free election, he did a mighty thing.

And that's what's hard for us at the top of organisations or who are in charge of teams: giving others the power when they might do things better than us and allowing them to shine, possibly at our own expense; knowing that they might do things we don't like or don't agree with.

Giving advice about this topic is difficult. You may be in a leadership role to develop your career, to gain status, to earn more, to prove that you have what it takes - and you're probably a competent, maybe even a good manager. But the seeds of great leadership? I suspect they lie in courage, humility and a sincere belief that the work of the team or the organisation is more important than one's own career, salary or reputation. Maybe that's why there aren't that many great leaders about. - Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change and a trustee of MedicAlert.

  - Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change and a trustee of MedicAlert

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