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Less Doing and More Learning: The Art of Unburdened Leadership

July 17, 2023
A look at three of the most impactful ways to empower your team to take ownership.

The pressure on leaders to deliver business results continues to intensify. And it can be overwhelming. In a culture of “doing,” where getting things done and achieving outcomes is paramount, leaders can fall into a cycle of doing everything themselves.

When you can unburden yourself from the mistaken beliefs you personally need to do it all, you can achieve so much more.

One of the invisible results of the “doing trap” is that you unknowingly add to your burden of responsibility. It often feels faster to just do it yourself, or to tell people exactly what to do and how to do it – but in doing so, you take over the ownership of the problem-solving execution, instead of spreading the doing across many people. You create a vicious cycle where you don’t have time to give your team members space to take responsibility for problem-solving or grow in their capabilities, and you feel pressured to keep doing it all yourself.

Less Doing and More Learning

The art of unburdened leadership comes when leaders empower their teams to take ownership of achieving a goal – and the support and space to learn how to get there. In a previous column, I addressed shifting the focus from  “doing” to “supporting” – investing in your people by first providing a clear challenge or goal, and then creating the conditions for them to learn and make progress towards it. The business outcomes you desire can only be achieved by empowering your people with the capabilities and confidence to solve problems and to take ownership for contributing meaningfully to achieve the needed results.

Breaking the cycle of “doing” requires intentionality, a mindset shift and a commitment to creating a culture that values learning. The why is evident, but the how isn’t always.

Here are three of the most impactful ways to move from a culture of doing to a culture of learning.

1. Connect with Your Intention

Intentionality is synonymous with deliberate, purposeful and conscious thoughts and actions. It requires personal awareness and a willingness to adjust to the needs of your own situation or circumstances as well as those around you. It’s much easier to not be intentional than to be intentional; however, where there’s an intentional will, there’s an intentional way.

One of the best ways to align with your intention is to take “intention pauses” throughout your day. We move so fast each and every day that it is easy to react instead of proactively choose our actions that will create our desired impact. These micro-pauses can help refocus attention on the actions you truly want to take. I like to describe that Intention = Heart + Direction – intention is about knowing our purpose inside our heart and the impact we want to make, and then taking the actions that align with that purpose and desired impact. By taking a short intention pause to connect with our heart –  our purpose – we remind ourselves of our role in the current situation, what outcome we desire, and what actions we need to take to create that impact.

2. Slow Down … Pause

In a world where “results yesterday” is the norm, slowing down goes against our cultural norm of “do, do, do.” Yet, it is an essential skill that can help us improve our leadership efforts, our problem-solving skills, and our relationships with others. In addition to an “intention pause”, creating pauses when we engage with others – such as after asking a question or setting forth a new challenge -- gives them space to think. And thinking is where innovation, problem-solving and learning happen! Here are three tips to create more space for thinking:

Get comfortable with silence. One easy way to do this: after you ask a question, count to 10 to give the other person or person to think about a thoughtful response or ask a follow-up question.  Sitting in silence is really uncomfortable for most of us – you might find yourself wanting to speak at count 2 or 3, but I promise that you will invite more thinking and engagement if you can wait. Resist the urge to fill the space with more questions or immediately jumping in with your own answer to your own question.

For more insights from Katie Anderson, join us Thursday at noon Eastern for IndustryWeek's bi-weekly Production Pulse livestream. We'll discuss Anderson's recent win of the Shingo Prize for her book "Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn," and insights she gained from her long collaboration with retired Toyota executive Isao Yoshino. 

Slow down your pace of speaking. Speaking more slowly can create the conditions for thinking and learning, and can also help convey your message clearly and effectively, particularly when you want to avoid coming across as frantic, rushed or ill-prepared. Slowing down will offer you new ideas as well as allow your team to have adequate reflection time. Don’t interrupt. Be aware of interrupting and cutting others off. This may be something you intentionally need to practice if you are used to speaking at the same pace as you think. When you interrupt others, you shut them down and limit their engagement and contributions.

3. Build a Routine of Reflection

Reflection is the beginning of learning, but usually in our “doing” culture where action is rewarded, it is the first thing that we deprioritize or just don’t do. When we create a habit of reflection – for ourselves, for our teams, and our organizations – we are more likely to make better decisions, and take more effective actions when we decide to “do.”

Create a habit of reflection. This can come in the form of self-reflection or collaborating with an accountability partner to remain focused on reflecting before acting. By building reflection time into your calendar and creating one-on-one accountability partnerships, you can stay focused and motivated to achieve your goals, and learn from what is working and not working. Schedule reflection time for your team. Unless it is scheduled and seen as a priority, it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day needs and lose sight of the bigger picture. As I demonstrate in my book Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn, Toyota is a great example of a company that prioritizes reflection and regularly conducts checks to identify areas for continuous improvement. Reflection and studying are rewarded as much – or more – than doing, as Toyota’s leaders know that learning is what accelerates improvement and innovation. Reflect more deeply. Usually in our desire for speed, our reflection process focuses on just visible outcomes, results or actions. But we rarely reflect more deeply about our thinking and unspoken assumptions. When we can call out assumptions and understand how they impact our “doing,” we can make better adjustments for actions in the future.

Building a Chain of Learning

The impact of unburdened leadership is moving from only doing to now empowering your team to join you in generating solutions. You will start to see the business outcomes you want, but more importantly, you will see growth of the members of your team. You will experience increased engagement, newfound innovation, and, together, will accomplish more.

When your team feels a sense of ownership of doing – and of contributing their thinking – they are more committed to achieving their goals and those of the organization as a whole. They feel valued and invaluable. When you offer direction and input, and invite your team into the action, you will find a new energy … one that stems from their knowledge that they are making a larger contribution to the project and organization as a whole.

When you say no to carrying the burden of all the “doing” yourself, you are really saying yes to inspiring growth in your team and achieving more ­ and better results. The secret to effective leadership isn’t focusing on just the business outcomes you need to achieve; it’s about focusing on creating the conditions for learning and supporting your people in discovering how to achieve them. It’s understanding that when many come together to carry the burden, the burden doesn’t seem quite as heavy anymore. Leadership can be challenging, but it can also be extremely, intentionally rewarding.

 Katie Anderson is an internationally recognized leadership coach, consultant, speaker, and learning enthusiast best known for inspiring leaders to lead with intention to increase their impact. With over 20 years of expertise in developing people-centered learning cultures, Katie equips executives and continuous improvement practitioners to lead change by aligning purpose, process, and practice to achieve higher levels of performance. Katie is the author of bestselling book “Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn: Lessons from Toyota Leader Isao Yoshino on a Lifetime of Continuous Improvement” and regularly leads executive learning trips to Japan to learn about the origins of lean and kaizen.

Katie has lived in seven countries. She received B.A. with honors from Stanford University and a Masters of Philosophy in public health from Sydney University, where she was a Fulbright Scholar.

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