Friday, August 6, 2010

Leaders Make Themselves Dispensible

"Whatever you set your mind to do, you always should make the road before you wide open, so that all people may traverse it. This is the concern of a great man.

If the way is narrow and perilous, so that others cannot go on it, then you yourself will not have any place to set foot either."

-- Zen Lessons, Translated by Thomas Cleary

One of my personal goals as a leader is to make myself as dispensible as possible. This goes against the grain of my natural and human desire to be important, needed and, of course. . . indispensible. It is a leadership paradox: in order to be a truly indispensible leader, you need to make yourself dispensible.

Leadership requires getting things done through others, not doing everything yourself. Doing it yourself is not leadership -- no one is following, no one is learning and no one is growing from the experience of doing whatever it is you're doing.

A challenge I face -- and I know I'm not alone among the ranks of business owners --is that I often serve as a bottleneck in my organization. For example, a contract sits in my inbox needing my signature but I keep putting it off due to other, more urgent items needing attention. Meanwhile, I have a staff member who is stuck. She cannot take the next steps she needs to take to get a task done because the contract in my inbox must be signed before she can move forward.

If I were simply to train her on what to look for in contracts, then when satisfied with her competence in reviewing them, empower her to submit contracts to me for immediate signature without review (or better yet, sign them herself), I could put an end to the bottleneck. Of course, that would make me dispensible. But that's a good thing.

The quote above speaks to a key element of achieving dispensibility: make the road before you wide open so others may traverse it. To me, that means give them the tools, training and resources to do what you do. Then resist the urge to do it yourself. Let them do it.

In this context, leadership is a constant exercise in letting go. What am I doing now that someone else can do? How do I let go of this and let someone else run with it? In other words, how can I find one more way to be dispensible?


  1. Jeff: Sounds like you are describing the great paradox of leadership. Jim Collins wrote of the paradox in his book Good to Great. He leaned the direction of the Zen Master. If we succeed at leadership, we are also teachers, cheerleaders, strategic thinkers, and in some regard striving for Zen Master. By enabling those we work with to succeed we are leading and causing our own dispensibility.

    Thank you for sharing the quote. David Muller, BA '78

  2. David,

    Great insight. I will have to go back and review my copy of "Good to Great." It's such a great leadership resource.