I recently met a leader who complained about what he referred to as “closed hand leadership”. The term was a new one to me, and it tweaked my curiosity. In trying to understand what he meant by this, I was struck by the power of the analogy.
The leader in question, let’s call him John, framed his observation this way: Some leaders hold onto the things that come across their path: information, tasks, plans or strategies. By holding on with both hands, leaders are deprived of the opportunity to pull up those reporting to them, reaching out to allies and supports and pushing forward important initiatives. By holding on with both hands, leaders are deprived of the opportunity to pull up others and push forward important work. Click To Tweet
In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson describes four key practices which allow cross-industry teams to succeed: fostering an adaptable vision, enabling psychological safety, facilitating the sharing of expertise and promoting execution-as-learning According to Edmondson, “leaders must manage the tension between clarity of purpose and potentially shifting goals.”
She describes three behaviours which leaders can model which invite people to speak up: being curious acknowledging uncertainty highlighting their own fallibility.
This all seems like open-handed leadership at work. The work required to support teams to reach complex and ambiguous goals, ask that leaders show themselves and their ideas, vision and values, be willing to lean into the vulnerability of admitting uncertainty and fallibility and to work as role models to ensure the sharing of learning and expertise in a psychologically safe culture. In Edmondson’s words: “They must be flexible, open-minded, and humble on the one hand and filled with fierce resolve on the other.”
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
In her book, Radical Candor, Kim Scott asserts: “Your ability to build trusting, human connections with the people who report directly to you will determine the quality of everything that follows.” Trusting human connections can only be built when we are open and willing to lead with open hands and open hearts. It is not a culture of “being nice”. It is a culture of being honest about performance, giving hard feedback with respect, clarity and kindness, and challenging people to show up and do their best work. The best way to show people that we believe in their abilities, is to ask them to show us what is possible. Click To Tweet
The best way to show people that we believe in their abilities, is to ask them to show us what is possible – an act of trust only possible when leaders show up with a mind open to new ideas and hands open to support and clear the way for those they lead.
How does this apply to your work as a leader?
How might you be able to open your hands?