One of the common accusations I hear levelled at managers is that they don’t provide enough value. That they’re useless, and they “don’t do anything”.
I’m not going to pretend that all leaders are great. However, leadership is tricky, and can be especially challenging in middle management roles.
Instead of getting in the way, leaders need to be helping their people. Instead of being a roadblock, a useful leader needs to be removing them.
We don’t want the people we lead to feel like they need to “manage” us all the time. We need them to be getting on with their work, because otherwise, it simply won’t get done.
Why Do Some Leaders Struggle to Feel Useful?
This issue of being “useful” sometimes comes up when I work with leaders. It’s depressing for a leader to feel like they aren’t adding enough value in their role.
I find this challenge appearing most often when a leader:
- Has been promoted from a technical role, and now needs to manage people
- Has other managers reporting to them, each with their own teams
- Is used to feeling valuable by doing technical work, which isn’t really their job any more
- Has very capable people working for them, who are quite self-sufficient; or
- Is used to being busy from being given work, and now they need to drive the work.
When you have spent your whole career being rewarded for actually doing the work, it can be a big shock when others need to do it for you.
Many leaders struggle because they feel like they need to be involved, but they don’t quite know how. They try to find the right balance between understanding the technical details of the work, without taking over.
This can be a challenge for leaders who are motivated by actually doing the work, rather than overseeing it.
Principles for Useful Leadership
When trying to feel more useful as a leader, it’s good to keep it simple. Here are some nice easy principles that I like to use to think about this topic.
- Help, instead of hinder
- Do things that their people are not able (or not in a position) to do
- “Zoom out” to see the big picture.
These three principles provide a useful frame for leaders trying to do their best for their people.
Do your actions fit with these principles? Or are there some adjustments you need to make?
Learn More: Why is Leadership Important? Here’s a Reminder.
Being a More Useful Leader: Things to Try
We have the principles, now let’s look at some actions to try to steer us down the path of more useful leadership.
1. Be a Useful Leader By Setting the Direction
Principle: “Zoom out” to see the big picture.
Leaders who are consumed with the day to day operations of their teams are focused on the “small picture”. The issue here is that if everyone is focused on the work of the team, nobody is looking where the team is going.
It’s like being in a boat with everyone rowing madly, while nobody is focusing on where the boat needs to go.
We need to be able to “zoom out” and see the bigger picture. This might mean developing a strategy or a vision for your team.
This means your focus is less on the day-to-day operations and more future-focused.
Without setting a clear direction, a team can begin to stagnate. Things simply stay the same, instead of changing, progressing or improving. This can cause team members to stagnate, too.
A stagnant team has low motivation, very little drive and people rarely develop any new skills or experience. This is a risk, because when change is forced upon you (which is inevitable these days!), you’ll have a poorly prepared team.
Learn More: For help setting the direction for your team, have a look at these previous articles:
- The Power of Setting a Direction For Your Team.
- Don’t Have a Clear Team Purpose? Here’s Why You Need One.
- Don’t Have a Team Operating Model? Here’s Why You Need One.
2. Be a Useful Leader By Building Relationships
Principle: Do things that your people are not able (or not in a position) to do.
No matter where you work, there will be some sort of politics at play. You don’t need to be a political animal, but it’s beneficial to understand the dynamics of your workplace, to use them to your advantage.
One of the best ways to help smooth the way for your team is to build useful relationships with your key stakeholders.
This includes your own boss, colleagues and other senior leaders in your organisation.
In the course of your work, you’ll no doubt need help to accomplish your goals. You’ll need people to support your direction, so you can help get your team to where it needs to go.
You’ll need to remove roadblocks, grease the wheels to gain approvals and reduce the chances of somebody firing a torpedo at your team.
The best way to do this is to build productive relationships with key people. Find out what they want. See how you can help. Listen, build rapport, and one day they might be able to help you too.
Learn More: Stakeholder Management Tips For the Everyday Leader.
3. Maintain the Right Level of Oversight
Principle: Help, instead of hinder.
No matter your role, it’s important to have oversight of the work of your team. Remember, that doesn’t mean you need to be doing the work.
Sometimes your people may feel annoyed that you need to be involved at all. Their behaviour and body language may scream “Just let me get on with it and stay out of my way”.
Unfortunately, removing yourself in this way won’t be as helpful as your people might think. Leaders who aren’t comfortable with their level of oversight may react by getting more involved. This might stray into the realms of micromanagement, and nobody wants that.
Maintaining sufficient oversight is helpful for your people, because you can:
- Spot roadblocks that may arise in the future (so you can remove them)
- Hold people accountable to performance standards
- Listen and find out what the frustrations, challenges and issues are
- Provide coaching and mentoring to develop your people; and
- Communicate with your stakeholders about progress and achievements.
If your people are resisting your oversight, it might be worth having a discussion about the points above. Your aim is to help, not to hinder.
If your people feel like you’re doing more of the latter, then an open conversation might help you to adjust your approach to suit both you and the team.
4. Focus on Improvement
Principle: “Zoom out” to see the big picture.
It might feel annoying to need to be constantly learning and improving all the time. But this is simply the way the world works.
Businesses that don’t improve go out of business, swallowed up by competitors. Teams that don’t improve create team members that are unemployable, because they don’t learn new skills to help them in future roles.
Creating improvement projects is a great way to have your team continuously progressing. Improvement projects allow your people to work on something other than their day job, which can be tremendous for motivation.
Improvement projects allow a whole different range of skills to be employed in your team. For example, you may need someone to manage the project. All of a sudden, you’re developing useful project management skills in your team.
Smart leaders focus on improvement.
They know change is coming, and a team that is improving will be better placed to adapt, embrace change and be ready for what is over the horizon.
Be a More Useful Leader and Feel Better About Leading
A major cause of leadership dissatisfaction is feeling like you’re not playing a useful role in the team. Feeling like you don’t add value, because you used to do the work, and now you’re overseeing it.
The more useful you can feel in your leadership role, the better you’ll feel about your leadership.
It’s never nice feeling like a third wheel in your team, particularly if the people you lead are competent and resourceful.
Use the principles in this post and see whether you can start feeling useful again.
What are some actions leaders can take to be more useful? Leave your suggestions below for me and all the other thoughtful leaders to see.