Are you still boiling water?

A friend of mine recently told me a story about her new supervisor.  “She is like a new mother.” 

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“A new mom, fearing germ contamination, will often snatch the baby’s pacifier off the floor and thrust it into a pot of boiling water, disinfecting it before putting it back in the baby’s mouth.  But by the second baby, the three-second rule applies and mom will wipe off the big stuff, clean it in her own mouth and then shove it back in the baby’s mouth.

“Well my boss is like a new mother.  She’s still boiling water.”

Sometimes new leaders are like that.  Sometimes, even mature leaders can be like that.  They think that being in charge means maintaining control over everything.  As a result, they smother their subordinates with “supervision” which means depriving others of initiative or the opportunity to innovate and find better ways of accomplishing the mission. 

I once was responsible for the Department of Defense public affairs effort during the rebuilding of Kuwait after the Gulf War.  It was a high visibility job with both State and Defense Department interest.  I had a public affairs specialist working for me who I had given responsibility for all the media activity.  But not really.  I took on the major national media and the high vis interactions, not because I wanted or needed the attention, but because I wanted to make sure every detail went right.  It wasn’t until my teammate came to me one day and said he couldn’t work for me anymore before I realized that I was not leading.  First it shocked me.  Then there was one of those too rare clarifying moments when I realized I was taking away his initiative and authority to act.  There was no doubt that he also had the best interests of the command at heart, but I wasn’t giving him the opportunity or authority to act.  I was still boiling water. 

When I let go of control, our relationship became much more collegial and we surely accomplished the mission much better than I could have alone. 

It is not easy to give up control when you are a perfectionist but it’s important to keep in mind that your role as a leader is not to stifle with supervision but to energize with enough guidance that subordinates are not afraid to take risks, to take action.  You may be amazed how much can be accomplished when you stop boiling water. 

Doug Coffey, APAA President