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The hands-off approach to leadership Add to ...

Do Nothing!

By J. Keith Murnighan

(Portfolio, 224 pages, $28.50)

*****

Want to be a great leader? It’s simple: Do nothing!

J. Keith Murnighan, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, says leaders often feel responsible for every team member and under enormous pressure to keep doing more – to do everything they possibly can. “Conscientious, dedicated leaders do too much – way too much,” he writes in his provocative new book, Do Nothing!

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Nature may abhor a vacuum. But he argues that employees benefit from a vacuum. If managers move aside and do nothing, their team members will not become lethargic but instead will fill the vacuum created.

“People on your team will reveal skills you never knew they had, and will accomplish things that go far beyond your estimate of their capabilities. They might not do things the way you would do them, but they will get results you never expected – positive results – because everyone has hidden talents, and most leaders never discover them,” he argues.

But Prof. Murnighan is not really recommending that managers sit in their chairs with their feet up on the desk and fingers crossed that this odd bit of management advice will work. The essence is to stop getting involved in day-to-day details but still lead. Too often, people are promoted for being very productive at doing tasks, and then can’t learn to let others strut their stuff.

Your role as a manager is to be a facilitator and orchestrator. Help your staff to get their work done, rather than interfere with their work. Orchestrate the work of team members, so that things go smoothly, with a hands-off approach and a collaborative mood.

“A leader’s job is not to do things. Instead, leaders do best when they help other people do as much as they can as well as they can. If each and every member of a team lives up to their maximum potential, the team and its leader will be as successful as they can possibly be,” he advises.

If doing nothing sounds like it has expanded to doing two things – facilitating and orchestrating – it doesn’t stop there. He adds two more guidelines, which can be summarized under the phrase “bear down warmly.”

First, to be effective, leaders must push people to do more than they otherwise would. That can come from encouragement, expressing high expectations (because people try to live up to the expectations of others) and, when necessary, an assertive push. He says research shows that to be more effective, leaders must ask people to do more than they otherwise would. They may not like you for this, of course, which is why leadership can be lonely.

Second, research shows you must sincerely care about your staff if you want to be an effective leader. Prof. Murnighan believes you know this innately, because if you think back to the best leaders you have had over your career, a common trait will be they cared about you as a person. Your team members must know you care about them.

Pushing people to do more, while also showing that you care about them, is the great balancing act every leader faces. In essence, it boils down to the conundrum of tough love. You aren’t seeking to be likeable. You are seeking to be respected and trusted – and effective. All while doing nothing (well, sort of nothing).

Prof. Murnighan highlights another dilemma for managers: Team members want democracy and the chance to have input about decisions, but the leader feels responsible for the group and usually wants to take control, thus reducing democracy. “Both feelings are natural, but they are in direct conflict with each other,” he notes.

This dilemma usually confronts people when they assume their first managerial position. But it continues afterward as well. The key is to get on with the job and don’t assume you know more than everyone else (individually, or combined).

As you work on the first two steps of doing nothing – facilitating and collaborating – you also need to create a democratic, trusting environment for your staff. You will still have a significant measure of control, for example, by developing the agenda for meetings. But the beauty of an agenda is that it gives employees a chance to say whatever they like, as long as it conforms to the agenda.

“Leadership does not have to be wildly complicated: Make sure that people have voice; do all that you can to help them feel psychologically safe; set up structures that encourage them to do well and move in what you hope is the best direction possible. Then help them to do that to the best of their abilities. It doesn’t have to be hard,” he writes.

This is an intriguing book, written in a brash, contrarian way but with a clear, thoughtful and research-based approach. It’s easy to read, and the messages will likely linger, particularly if you struggle with the more traditional leadership styles inherited from the past.

Postscript

Apple Inc. seems to be the apple of many business writers’ eye, judging by recent books:

Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drive’s Apple’s Success (Portfolio, 225 pages, $27.50) by Ken Segall, who worked closely with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as an ad agency creative director, explains how the notion of simplicity pervades the organization.

Inside Apple (Business Plus, 223 pages, $29.99) by Fortune reporter Adam Lashinsky chronicles how the secretive company really works.

The Apple Experience (McGraw-Hill, 234 pages, $27.95) by communications coach Carmine Gallo looks at how to cultivate fervently loyal customers.

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