One of the biggest challenges facing a leader is the change from direct to indirect leadership. By this we mean the move from doing the leading to guiding others who are doing the direct leading. Some leaders can make this transition well, while others struggle with letting go. They can tend to stay too engaged, micro-managing, or seldom fully delegating to others important responsibilities. Here are several keys making the move from direct to indirect leadership both fruitful and healthy for all involved.
Foundational in this transition to indirect leadership is the clear conviction that at this time, for the good of the work and for maximizing their own contribution, the best thing to do is let others do the direct leading. This means that we assume a coaching-oversight role for those who are now taking the primary leadership role. This change will greatly increase the influence and capacity of the leader as they multiply other leaders who are now doing the direct leadership. This move must be made with the conviction that the demands of the work (usually due to success and growth related problems) require more leadership capacity. The leader who has been doing the direct leading now becomes the bottleneck to future growth unless they make this transition from direct to indirect coaching and supervising of other leaders. Being convinced that this is our best contribution at this time, having a sense of calling from the Lord about this move, is essential. If not, confusion can happen for all involved.
When leading directly we frequently have clear titles, roles, and jobs. There is a sense of security that comes from this clarity and outcomes of our leadership can be easy to measure. We meet with a person and their lives are impacted by our influence. They then tell us how grateful they are for our leadership. The feedback loop is clear and direct – we lead and see-feel-know the impact. But when moving to a more indirect role those feedback loops are longer and not so clear. Indirect leaders are often thinking and leading on a much longer time horizon and thus the feedback based upon their decisions can be years ahead.
In an indirect leadership role we are coaching and supervising other leaders who are receiving that kind of clear feedback. Our indirect leadership influence is often hidden behind those leaders in direct leadership roles and many being impacted will never know of our roles as we coach and guide others. Instead of receiving the positive feedback from our leadership, we can find ourselves continually dealing with others’ problems and mess. Without intention, we have become “one of them” – those leaders who sit in many organizational meetings, often criticized for being out of touch or questioned about overall importance of their contribution. This is why it is so very important to be convinced that this is our greatest contribution.
Without this conviction it will be easy to seek some connection again with more direct involvement. We justify it by saying to ourselves, “Oh, this is too important to let others lead.” Or we can mistakenly think it is serving those we lead by taking a more direct involvement rather than delegating to them. We can justify it by saying we are serving by lifting a burden from them or even that I will do a better job on this than they will. And in reality, we often can do a better job due to more experience and maturity. But we forget that we were once in their position and someone trusted us with responsibility knowing that we would learn valuable lessons and grow as a leader. And if we were truly honest with ourselves it is our ego or personal insecurities that drive us to seek those compliments, clarity of impact, or hands-on involvement once again. The ambiguity of indirect leading can be a threat for some.
Is it time to step out of your direct leadership role to make room for other leaders to emerge and grow into their leadership? Are you the bottleneck to growth by clinging onto your direct role due to the seeming ambiguity of the indirect leadership role? Making this move is a great privilege and a high calling, especially if it is needed due to God’s blessing on the work. May you take this courageous step and do it with grace, as you empower the next generation to grow into the yoke of their leadership.