Leading by Letting: A New Leadership Style

LeadershipProduct Engineering

Leadership is hard. Especially when you’re leading a team of people who are intelligent and ambitious enough to become professional software engineers. Then, on top of being responsible for a group of highly skilled individuals—all of whom have their own styles and common practices—you also have to answer the call regarding deliverables, deadlines, and scope. Each of these has stakeholders wanting updates, answers, and information regularly.

That’s a lot. And with all these moving pieces, there are many potential points of failure. Any broken chain link can bring the whole operation down like a house of cards. So how do you keep it all together? Ironically, one of the best solutions is to let go. More specifically, “leading by letting.”

What is leading by letting?

Leading by letting is a leadership management style that builds upon the principles of “servant leadership,” a similar leadership management style first popularized around the 1970s. It’s simple and, for most, terrifying. Here is the gist:

  • You, as the manager, maintain and distribute requirements knowledge, keep track of progress, and report to your stakeholders.
  • You then cast the vision to your team of what needs to be accomplished and the stakes.
  • At that point, you trust your highly skilled team members—whom you or your company have vetted and determined to be the best person available for their role—to carry out this vision.

Why is leading by letting so counterintuitive?

It sounds obvious, but operating this way is initially anxiety-inducing, especially for people abiding by the philosophy “if you want it done right, do it yourself.”. You, as the leader, are responsible for the success of the project… and you’re putting it in the hands of other people. If they don’t do their jobs or fall short, you will be held accountable. But here’s the thing: that was going to be the reality of the situation all along. Unless you are micromanaging the progress line-by-line (please don’t!), you will always be at the mercy of your team members.

So how is leading by letting any different? It’s trusting your team on purpose. And in doing so, you encourage them to create better work.

Why is leading by letting effective?

Your team deserves your trust from day one. Think about it: you already vetted your team through the hiring process, and they were chosen because they were deemed capable of making your goals and requirements a reality. So let them know they are the owner of their assigned work domain and support them while they do it.

When you hand over a user story to someone, check daily to see how it’s coming along, and constantly ask for details about how they’re approaching it, you are unintentionally sending the message that this person is working on something for you. That probably doesn’t make them feel like an owner.

But if you instead explain the feature and have planning sessions where that person is as involved as you or even leading the conversation, you send the message, “You are capable of handling this, and I trust and value your ideas. I’ll get out of the way and let you take the reins on this one.” It becomes less about you and more about the team. You are the facilitator of passionate and talented individuals practicing their craft.

The role of leadership management in a company that leads by letting.

Leading by letting is not a passive approach to leadership. You would never hand over the task and merely check back on progress days later. Your role as a manager is to remove blockers, answer questions, collaborate on ideas, and communicate between stakeholders and team members. And you are still the one to answer questions or criticisms if things don’t go the way stakeholders expect.

Responsibilities of managers leading by letting:

  • Know your team members. What talents do they possess? What disinterests them? This simplifies breaking up the work.
  • Communicate a clear vision of project success. There should be no mystery surrounding expectations and scope.
  • Keep communication open. Hold regular conversations regarding the progress of a task and its evolution throughout the development lifecycle. Listen to your team member’s ideas. Provide feedback and compliments. Encouraging them.
  • Protect your team. Keep them shielded from difficult conversations and meetings that will distract from their progress. When someone has a tough day on the project, remind them that they are a trusted, expert craftsperson in their field.
  • When risks arise, get down in the trenches with the person(s) responsible for determining a way forward that keeps things on track. Sometimes you, as the leader, will have to save someone from themselves—that’s OK, too.

The risks of leading by letting

To address the elephant in the room: what if trusting the team doesn’t work, and it blows up in your face?

That is a possibility for everything you ever do, but an outcome like that is infinitely less likely when you follow this management style. If you try it out and have issues with your project, you will still serve your team well and likely have found areas in your hiring and staffing processes that can be improved. You’ll also likely have a team ready to jump through walls for you, knowing you trust and value them for doing their jobs well. Not a bad outcome.

Hire smart and trust those you hire

If you choose this management style, hiring well is critical. If you don’t have the right people—it simply won’t work. Target your interview questions and exercises such that you can get a deep enough insight into the candidates to be sure they fit the mold.

And then, do the hard part: let them do their best work. It could be the key to unlocking the big potential within your teams.

Image of Bryan Baker

Bryan Baker is Software Engineer and Manager at Dialexa. He oversees a team of front-end, native mobile engineers and architects throughout the fruition and completion of digital products. Bryan is a passionate, knowledgable, and solution-oriented engineer who thrives by staying ahead of the curve on best practices, tools, and trends in the digital product communities. Passionate about leadership, Bryan is a leader and as well as a learner, encouraging his mentors however he can.
Connect with Bryan on LinkedIn


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