As leaders, here’s why it’s important to know when to lead from a distance…

Some of the best leadership advice I received throughout my time in the Army contradicted every leadership instinct that I’ve ever had.  I can’t speak for everyone reading this, but my instincts lead me to being a very hands-on leader.  I like to be in the trenches with my teams and involved in the work being done – not just barking orders from the sidelines.  However, I learned the hard way that this isn’t always what’s best for the team and more importantly, it’s not always needed.  Here’s why…

First, let me take you back to the way in which I learned this valuable lesson.  It was early in 2014 and I had just arrived in Austria for a three-day operation with NATO support forces and I was ecstatic.  This was my first real-time operation and I poured my heart and soul into the three months of planning that went into preparation of this mission.  The challenging part was that it was just myself and my platoon sergeant and we were responsible for getting ourselves to Austria.  Once we arrived, we were tasked with successfully setting up a TOC (tactical operations center) in a country we’d never been to before then to receive the 12 helicopters full of nearly 50 soldiers, coordinate their refuel with local Austrian forces and successfully relaunch them and monitoring the final leg of their flight towards their final destination in Hungary.

Honestly, I felt both confident and prepared right up until the moment when my platoon sergeant looked me in the eyes and said, “Ok Private Natale, You’re in charge”….

“Um, what….”

I remember feeling my stomach drop as I looked at him with a face that I’m sure read, “What the hell do you mean I’m in charge?  You’re supposed to be in charge…..”

He proceeded to tell me that I was the one who planned this operation and I was the one who knew the equipment.  He said that he was only there to oversee and that it was up to me to execute.  Normally he was a very hands-on leader as well but for some reason he felt these circumstances were different.

I had never been so nervous in my life but I am proud to say that mission went flawlessly.  I gained so much confidence in myself and my abilities during that operation and I owe that to the opportunity that my platoon sergeant gave me.

The truth is, my platoon sergeant knew exactly what he was doing.  He was part of the initial invasion into Iraq and he had run countless operations like this for the last 15 years of his career in the Army.  But he took a chance on me and he gave me the opportunity to do things my way.  Had he not done that, I may have never gained the confidence and skills needed to lead other soldiers on countless operations just like that over the remainder of my career in the Army.

Now as a leader I’ve realized that there is a time and place for hands-on leadership and there is a time to lead from a distance.  As leaders, our instincts urge us to constantly provide both guidance and direction to those we lead, but this isn’t always needed.  In fact, sometimes, people have the knowledge and expertise needed to be successful – they just need the opportunity to prove it to you.  This in turn makes our lives easier as the leader when we know they are capable of handling delegated tasks on their own…

In addition, sometimes despite our good intentions, providing too much guidance and instruction has the opposite effect we were looking for and decreases the ability for our teams to be successful.

As I mentioned, I put significant time and effort into planning that operation and had my platoon sergeant not given my the opportunity to prove that I knew how to execute that plan, it would have likely crushed my morale.

One of the best things we can do as leaders is to be flexible and understand that not everything will go exactly how we planned.  But if we give people the opportunity to showcase their strengths then we significantly increase the capabilities of our teams.

That opportunity I was given in Austria not only what allowed me to showcase my talents but it lit a motivational fire in my heart that has only grown stronger over the years.  It built confidence and morale and most importantly, it built a significant level of trust between myself and my leader.

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