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You Can’t Be a Great Leader Until You’re a Great Enabler

I used to be the bad kind of enabler.

You may know what this means. I sometimes “enabled” others by letting them get away with things. Family members, friends–they knew who to hang out with and who to share their secrets with because I’d pretend it wasn’t a big problem. I’d enable their secret.

The classic example of this is the person who enables a heavy drinker. You drive this person to the liquor store, you hand over some spare cash, you look the other way.

In business, being an “enabler” like that is always wrong.

Great leaders know it is important to correct employees who are on the wrong path, and enabling them to make mistakes or avoid consequences is not a wise strategy. It usually ends in failure. Enabling means–you look the other way and let people get away with things because you don’t want to fight the battle and you like to avoid stress.

Then, the company sinks like a stone.

The problem, of course, is that there is also the good kind of enabling.

I’m convinced this enabling is what separates good leaders from great leaders. When you enable others, you provide all of the tools for the job, you create the ideal environment for success, you step aside and let the employees do the hard work and get the credit, and you become more like the wind that moves a boat through rough waters, rather than the captain of the ship who is always in charge. Here’s a story to illustrate the point.

I’ve been doing some mentoring with college students, and I’ll be honest–I’m far from perfect. As a journalist and columnist, I’m more inclined to figure out a way to do something myself under my own strength without much help. (Coincidentally, I’m writing a book about this tendency to rely on our own power–you’d think it would cross my mind not to be the guy who comes up with all of the answers without any help.)

Lately, I’ve learned that it’s incredibly important to go to bat for others. You become a designated hitter. You are in a support role. You pick up the bat, swing it a few times, and step into the batter’s box. The base-runners get all of the glory–they score the points. The goal is not to get the attention. It’s to swat away any of the impediments to progress for the employee, to set the tone of success. I’ve literally had to make a conscious decision to step into the batter’s box knowing I’m probably going to get hit by a wild pitch…or worse. I’ve gotten to the point in my career where I’m more interested in seeing others succeed, even to my own detriment. I’ll go down swinging, at least.

This is not always easy for me. Getting hit by a pitch hurts. You have to keep your focus on the base-runner, the person who is going to have to figure out how to round the bases. A great leader is someone who is willing to take a few hits to the chest. No fame or glory, not career-building, no patting your own back. It’s all about enablement. Your role is to make sure others shine brightly, to provide an opportunity for their home runs.

I didn’t always do this. As a corporate manager years ago, I was trying to support my young family and I was not against pushing others (or even my own team members) to the side in order to achieve my own goals. That was over 16 years ago. I’ve learned a lot about empathy since then, about what it means to look for ways to enable others and not ensure my own success at any cost. I have a long way to go. A true sign of greatness is when a leader is willing to set aside all ambition for the sake of the team, and I’m not there yet. I’m not even sure if I’m on the right path for that yet.

How about you?

As a leader, are you willing to set aside your own career goals and humble yourself enough to enable others? Is this all about you or is it all about them? Is the team going to succeed because you have provided the means for their success or are they going to fail because you keep insisting on getting the credit? That’s a decision only you can make.

Time to pick up the bat and find out.

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