Going Forward by Stepping Back!

Here is a simple but troubling truth: Most bosses reach a certain level of proficiency and stop there — short of what they could and should be.

Surprising Advice on How to Get Ahead 

Here is a simple but troubling truth: Most bosses reach a certain level of proficiency and stop there — short of what they could and should be. Organizations usually have a few great managers, some capable ones, a horde of mediocre ones, some poor ones and some awful ones (Harvard Business Review, 2011). The great majority of people are well-intentioned, smart, accomplished individuals. Many progress and fulfill their ambitions. But too many derail and fail to live up to their potential. Why? Because they stop working on themselves!

Managers rarely ask themselves, “How am I doing?” and “Do I need to improve?” …unless they’re shocked into it!  Think about it, when did you last ask (and honestly answer) these three questions?

  • On the spectrum of great to awful bosses, where do I fall?
  • Am I working on being excellent or am I good enough?
  • What have I done recently to make myself an even better leader?

Most organizations offer their managers minimal support and training and rarely encourage them to improve. Few expect more of their leaders than short-term results, which, by themselves, don’t necessarily indicate real leadership skills. Setting an organizational goal is only the first half of what’s required. You need to know where you are on your personal growth journey and what you need to do to progress. To grow, you need to intentionally work to change, even if it’s uncomfortable in the short-run. Set personal goals. Get training and coaching. Create a network of trusted advisers, role models and mentors. Making the effort isn’t easy, but it’s definitely rewarding.

So where do you start and how do you assess yourself? Ask for feedback. Typically, the higher you are in an organization, the less performance feedback you get. Ask people you trust to share what they see as your greatest strengths, and if they could see an opportunity for improvement what would that be?  When you get the feedback, just listen. Don’t give a rebuttal or an explanation. If you are uncomfortable asking for feedback, consider a 360-degree feedback written assessment.

One of the surprises that many leaders learn by this feedback process is that rather than needing to step forward to assert authority, they found they needed to step back. So how do you do that?

1. Listen more than you talk. Before you act, listen. Get other people’s assessment and suggestions on the situation. Find out if they want or need help. No one likes a meddler but most of us appreciates a helper. If people want help, do not pull a “command and control” act. Listen to their needs and desires and mentor them to be successful.

2.Identify the true problem before you act. Presenting issues may only be a symptom of a larger condition.  It may take more time to learn the root cause of the situation, but in the long-run, that will be more effective. Only then can you assess what you can and cannot do as well as what you will or won’t do. What you can do and what you choose to do may not be the same.

3. Stand back. If you have the power to act, do it with your people. Think like a film director. You are the one behind the camera. The actors are doing the work. You are simply putting things in focus and providing some direction. Be willing to lend a hand, but do not take over. Remember that you are a leader, not a boss.

4. One step forward, two steps back. Sometimes the need to act is urgent. Crises provoke a call for immediate action. Work side by side with your people in their arena. Be there, assist, and when the crisis is over, step back and let them take over.

5. Don’t overreach. Ask what role they want you to have. Often there are rivalries among people, so sharing authority can be tricky, and one misstep can be treacherous.

Believe it or not, leading by stepping back gets you noticed. When done correctly, it positions you as someone who knows how to make things happen while respecting those around you and developing trust. Those who can lead by stepping back are rare, but essential to the success of any enterprise. So get to work, which may mean stepping back.


Mimi Hull _BWDr. Mimi Hull, founder of Hull & Associates, HullOnline.com, is a fully licensed corporate psychologist whose speaking, training and coaching has helped both organizations and individuals to grow…and even like each other!

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