I have sometimes complained about a micromanaging boss, but am I ready to accept the repercussions that come from being given the autonomy to lead and potentially fail?
Thomas Ricks’ book The Generals examines this issue from the perspective of how leadership in the Army has changed since World War II. He outlines how George Marshall, chief of staff during World War II viewed autonomy and leadership:
Marshall saw relief as a natural part of generalship. Firing, like hiring, was simply one of the basic tasks of the senior managers. It was inevitable when selecting human beings for extraordinarily complex and difficult jobs that some percentage would fail. But he did not see it, usually, as disgraceful. On his watch, relief usually was not a discharge from the service but a reassignment.Ricks, Thomas E.. The Generals (p. v)
As the leader of the US Army, Marshall recognized he needed the best in the top positions to accomplish the monumental task facing the Allies. Allowing ineffective leaders to remain was a disservice to the soldiers he led and would ultimately hurt the ability of the Army to help the Allied forces win the war. So he instituted a culture of rapid hiring, firing, promotion, and demotion, in order to given autonomy and responsibility to his leaders.
But this culture of rapid hiring, firing, promotion, and demotion hasn’t lasted in the Army. Instead, it was replaced with additional supervision, something we might refer to today as “micromanagement.”
As a leader, we face a similar challenge. If we want to take responsibility and be given the latitude to lead without micromanagement we need to accept that we can be relieved of our duties as well.
And as a leader of leaders, if we want to have independent, strong leaders, there’s something to learn from George Marshall’s pattern of leadership. Empower your leaders, but be ready to move them if they prove incapable of rising to the challenges their teams encounter.