Lead, follow, or get out of the way
Getting out of the way needs discipline, nerves of steel, humility and patience
My daughter is learning to drive nowadays, and it’s driving us all crazy. In her head, she’s too cool for the slow and medium lanes, so she barrels into the fast lane with supreme confidence, and proceeds to drive at a snail’s pace there, causing pile-ups and honking and blood pressure spikes all along NH 7. Sitting behind her, the family grinds its teeth and mutters the Good Driver’s motto No.1: lead, follow, or get out of the way. This also happens to be the Good Manager’s maxim, with the encouraging caveat that if you mess up, you don’t end up as roadkill—at least not literally.
All these functions, i.e, leading, following and getting out of the way, are highly specialized, complex to execute, and require a specific set of (thankfully, mostly learnable) skills. Leading is the easiest job out of the three, I find, requiring merely confidence and clarity and the ability to carry people along. Following is harder, because the maximum amount of the actual work is done by these folks, and they have to deal with this delusional leader who thinks he/she’s “carrying them” along. But the hardest job, at least IMHO, is getting out of the way.
Getting out of the way requires humility, discipline, nerves of steel and buckets of patience; basically, skills that belong less to a graduate from a fancy management college, and more to a young mother watching a two-year-old feed itself. There will be banana mash on the carpet, there will be banana mash on the table. There will be banana mash on the cute “Lady Goo Goo” onesie, there will be banana mash in the ears, nose, eyes and hair, there will be banana mash everywhere except inside the toddler’s starving tummy. Still mommy will have to hang back, pretend to be busy doing some other work, and merely smile encouragingly and cry out at periodic intervals, “Oh well done, baby! Good baby! Clever baby!”, while inwardly experiencing a cold, sinking feeling and thinking, “Oh my God, what am I doing, my child is going to starve to death unless I intervene now!”
But if you don’t want to be sitting around feeding 50-year-olds when you are yourself 75, you’re going to have to learn to just mash the banana, put it in front of them and then... Stay. Out. Of. The. Way.
Okay, end of metaphor.
When I was younger, I was naive enough to think that getting out of the way at work meant washing your hands off a project. Like I’m out of here. Like lunch and shopping at Khan Market. Like, not my problem, bro. But it doesn’t. Because you might have outsourced the task, but the buck still stops with you. So what it actually means is helicoptering feverishly while contriving to stay invisible even as you throw out valuable hints that will point your team in the right direction, and standing by, primed and ready to pick up the pieces when/if the shit hits the fan. Oh, and after you barrel in and fix the mess, be ready to be told that if you had just stayed out of the way a little longer, they would have figured it all out by themselves, thank you very much, and the result would have been way better than the pedestrian solution you came up with. So there’s base ingratitude in the mix too. (But if you’re lucky, they may figure it out when they get to the position you are in today, and a Raymond’s ad moment may happen to brighten the twilight of your life. We live in hope.)
Essentially, what I’ve figured out is that when you’re the lowest of the low, you follow, when you get a bit more senior, you lead. But if you want to reach the exalted levels of overpaid super management, you must learn to mostly get out of the way—and swoop in (with increasing infrequency) to shakily save the day.
Wine to Five is a weekly column featuring the random musings of a well-irrigated, middle-management mind. Anuja Chauhan is an author and advertising consultant.
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