The virtues of hands-off leadership

Let go.
Let go.
Image: AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson
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When I first took on the role of president and CEO at Red Hat, I was shocked by what appeared to be chaos in how the organization operated: Associates had debates with their managers. Meetings involved extremely heated and passionate discussions. There was an occasional tear.

I thought, “They brought me in here to clean this place up.”

Soon, however, I learned that what I’d first interpreted as chaos was actually a unique organizational culture—and one that could be quite effective. I’d been trained to be a detail-oriented, order-driven person who focuses on the hard numbers. Red Hat’s culture called for a more facilitative approach. I would need to simply let go.

Those first months, I felt a bit like an anthropologist who had stumbled on a new world and I had to resist the urge to insert myself.  I knew that if I had a shot at surviving and providing value in my new role, I was going to have to let go of my previously conceived notions of hierarchy and what it meant to be a leader.

Looking back 10 years later, I’m so glad I did. While it was not an easy change, I now look at it as a gift and I believe I’m a better leader for it. Here’s what I learned about creating a hands-off approach to leadership.

Don’t confuse civility with collaboration

A vast majority of the CEOs and leaders I talk with think that “effective collaboration” means they need to get their people to get along and work better together. Many focus their efforts on getting associates to be “nice” to each other, through teamwork, brainstorming, and positive reinforcement.

Unfortunately, what I’ve found is that focusing on nice-ness creates a false sense of collaboration and teamwork. People just toe the line and shy away from disagreement, even if their opinions are valid.

Leaders need to understand that good collaboration requires constructive conflict. While questioning ideas and disagreeing with your boss or colleagues isn’t easy, it is necessary for generating great ideas. Leading a collaborative organization isn’t about getting people to hold hands and sing Kumbaya. It’s about building the environment where people can vehemently disagree in a respectful manner.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

One of the most difficult challenges leaders face is getting comfortable with a certain amount of uncertainty. Giving up control is difficult for everybody, but especially so for leaders who have spent years in traditional environments where they were responsible for imposing structure. And quite frankly, imposing this structure is what a lot of leaders see as their value to the organization.

But progress isn’t always consistent, and innovation isn’t linear. The organizations and leaders who fail are the ones who try to mandate development and innovation.  You can’t force your people to have a breakthrough idea. Instead, you have to create an environment where they are free to explore, try, learn, and modify. And that’s not a plan that you can present to your board.

People typically prefer certainty over ambiguity. We sleep better at night that way. But the world is becoming less certain. Instead of pretending there’s a step-by-step plan to follow or a structure that will lead to the answers, leaders must foster people’s capacity to live in a world without clarity.

In all honesty, hands-off, open leadership is not an easy road. The first confrontational conversations are hard. The first time you say “I don’t know, and I’m not sure it’s knowable” is hard. But over time you build new leadership muscles and it gets easier for everyone in the organization. And the results of a well-functioning, collaborative team become obvious. At some point, you’ll say, “I can’t believe we ever operated another way.”

For me personally, I’d like to say that Red Hat is a better company because I didn’t try to change its open, honest culture. Instead, I let it change me for the better, and now I really understand the merits of being an open leader.

Jim Whitehurst is president and CEO of Red Hat.