Summary: The debate about the best way to lead has been raging for years: Should you empower your people and get out of their way, or take charge and push them to do great work? The answer, say the authors, is to do both. Their research shows that effective leaders routinely shift between these two seemingly opposing modes—and build teams whose members are good at switching back and forth too.
Sometimes teams need divergent thinking (during idea generation, for instance); at others, they need convergent thinking (to, say, make a decision and map out next steps). Leaders must be crystal clear about which mode is appropriate when. They have to make it psychologically safe for people to speak up, contribute, and argue, and when it’s time to end the discussion and act, signal that they’re taking charge again.
There are four ways to increase the ability to shift modes: Question your assumptions about power and fixed hierarchies. Study your habits and your team’s to see if you’re stuck in one mode or the other. Set clear expectations with meeting agendas and rituals that mark transitions. And reinforce shifts with your own words, deeds, and body language.
After spending years considering clashing arguments from renowned leaders and academics—and hundreds of hours studying this question ourselves—we’ve concluded that it’s a false choice. The most effective leaders, our research shows, routinely shift between those two approaches to meet the demands of the moment. They build teams and organizations whose members are adept at switching back and forth too, and leverage their formal authority and the respect they’ve earned to shape when and how their people do so.
We’ve learned about this bimodal leadership approach in our interviews, observations, and research at a wide variety of organizations, including AstraZeneca, Microsoft, Pixar, IDEO, the Golden State Warriors, professional and financial services firms, health care organizations, oil and gas conglomerates, and Silicon Valley start-ups. By being intentional about how much power they wield or delegate as events unfold, the successful managers we’ve studied enhance the performance of their teams. In this article we explore the strategies they use to operate in this fashion.
The Case for Dual Power Modes
Our research shows that when leaders and teams get stuck in either “exercise authority” mode (in which the leader holds tightly on to power) or “flat” mode (in which the leader levels the hierarchy and shares power), they run into trouble. Teams ruled by overbearing leaders who issue commands don’t generate the innovative, creative thinking that is the lifeblood of companies. When we did in-depth case studies of 10 start-ups, we found that those trapped in a top-down mode had CEOs who said things like “If I’m paying them, they’re supposed to do whatever I tell them.” Such CEOs didn’t have the skill, credibility, and trust needed to get ideas and suggestions from employees. In contrast, ventures stuck in flat mode lacked the crisp decision-making, disciplined coordination, and efficient action that drive good implementation. One CEO, for example, constantly deferred to his team and kept asking for feedback and repeating that everybody’s opinion was valid. He put off urgent decisions and, when he made them, based them on advice from members who had less expertise than he did.
The most successful leaders and teams rarely get stuck. That’s what we found in our study of 258 virtual teams that were competing to develop ideas for a new start-up. We ran that competition with help from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which provided the funding for the prizes. Leading venture capitalists judged the teams’ performance. We discovered that teams that routinely shifted between “one person clearly takes the lead” and “we all participate equally” outperformed those that operated in just one of those modes.
In another study we conducted a randomized experiment with 150 temporary teams made up of senior executives from a wide range of companies. The leaders of 50 teams maintained a traditional hierarchy, the leaders of another 50 created a flat hierarchy, and those heading the remaining 50 alternated between the two—they gave members time to voice their opinions and ideas but then stepped in and asserted authority when needed. The teams played a simulation game in which members climbed Mount Everest together. They were evaluated on the quality of their decisions—such as when to start and end the daily climb, whether to climb that day at all, and how to allocate oxygen to team members—many of which required them to synthesize information held by different members. Here again the teams that alternated modes performed much better than the others, making objectively superior decisions.
When, Where, and How to Shift
Leaders who are adept at shifting power modes let everyone know when it’s time for divergent thinking (during idea generation, for instance) and when it’s time for convergent thinking (to, say, map out next steps). They send clear signals about when their teams should offer suggestions, raise concerns about problems and risks, and argue. They also make it psychologically safe for people to speak up—ensuring they feel they’ll be heard, respected, and valued. And when it’s time to end the discussion, make a decision, and act, skilled leaders signal that they’re taking charge again.
Teams that routinely shifted between “one person clearly takes the lead” and “we all participate equally” outperformed those that operated in just one of those modes.
That’s what the filmmakers at Pixar Animation Studios do. Pixar is renowned for compelling and profitable computer-animated movies such as Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, and Soul and the Incredibles and Toy Story series. According to Ed Catmull, who cofounded Pixar and was its president for its first 32 years, the company uses power shifting in the meetings of a group dubbed “the brain trust.” At these meetings filmmakers—including story artists, producers, and directors—help directors develop their films by offering suggestions and criticism and debating different solutions. Catmull recently told us, “While outside the room, one person may have more authority than another, inside the brain-trust meeting everyone’s voice has equal weight. The people in the room must view one another as peers.” To help “remove power from the room,” he added, during these sessions the most prestigious people “keep quiet for the first 10 or 15 minutes” and allow others to speak. At the end of the meeting, after the group has finished sharing and debating ideas as peers, the hierarchy kicks back in: “The final decision on how to solve a problem is always the director’s,” Catmull said.
Meetings are a good opportunity for leaders to shift power modes. Though people love to hate meetings, every organization needs them to generate ideas, share information, debate possible solutions, communicate decisions, steer implementation, and fire people up. Sure, many organizations have too many meetings, but you always need some, and effective leaders know how to get the most out of them.
Once you understand how and where to shift power modes, you can increase your ability to do it by taking these four steps:
1. Revisit Your Mindset
Many leaders hold flawed beliefs about power that prevent them from alternating between exercising and delegating authority. Here’s how to escape that trap.
Question the assumption that hierarchy is fixed.
Yes, most companies have—and need—an organizational chart with job titles and reporting requirements that spell out who has the authority to make key decisions. But savvy leaders know that the messy and ever-evolving nature of organizational life means it’s unwise—if not impossible—to keep the same pecking order in the organization at all times.
Members of the best teams don’t treat rules and roles like a musical composition that’s played exactly as written. Instead, like jazz musicians, they improvise, trying new things and constantly making adjustments in response to one another’s moves, while still being guided—and often constrained—by the original theme. Jazz bands routinely rotate leadership, giving each player a chance to have a solo or develop a musical idea while others play a supporting role. This ability to support another musician is known as comping—listening and responding without overshadowing—and it’s one reason jazz players are so respected by other musicians.
Look at how much airtime you get. We’ve found that leaders often talk too much in meetings where everyone is supposed to contribute.
Like good jazz players, successful leaders excel at both exerting their power and relinquishing it at the appropriate times. We saw this at one start-up where the CEO told his team he was “horrible at sales” and invited one of the women on it to take the lead at a meeting to draw up the sales strategy. She steered the conversation, and he jumped in only occasionally with questions. At the end of the meeting the CEO took control back, adding a few things to her list, telling her what to do next, and then securing commitment from everyone in the room to support the new strategy. This approach ensured that every team member would follow up and help turn the new strategy into organizational action.
Recognize that sharing power doesn’t diminish your authority.
Many leaders fear that encouraging others to voice opinions and make decisions will weaken their own standing. But there is good evidence—including a study by Tsedal Neeley and B. Sebastian Reiche—that the opposite is true. Leaders who know when and how to cede power earn respect and commitment. The best people want to work for them, and the team member with the most pertinent expertise sways decisions. For all those reasons, their teams perform better.
In their study Neeley and Reiche tracked 115 senior leaders at a global U.S.-based tech consulting company. Most of them were responsible for selling and implementing projects in countries where they had little experience. The leaders who were rated as top performers by their superiors and got more promotions routinely flattened the hierarchy. They practiced “downward deference”: working side by side with employees rather than lording power over them. Like the Brazilian leader who told his Singapore team, “Let’s invert the jobs here. You don’t work for me. I work for you,” they acknowledged subordinates’ technical and cultural expertise by deferring to their judgment. The worst-performing executives insisted on maintaining a rigid pecking order and behaved as if they were the smartest people in the room, even when they were clueless about local traditions and markets. One was an American boss who was sent home from China after a year because he didn’t trust his local team, talked too much, and kept conveying the message “I’m the expert because I have led so many things.”
2. Analyze Yourself and Your Team
Leaders and teams often don’t even realize that they’re trapped in one power mode. That’s why being aware of your own tendencies and making your team members aware of theirs is crucial. Here’s how to do it.
Study your habits.
Look at how much airtime you get in discussions. We’ve found that leaders often talk too much in meetings where everyone is supposed to contribute ideas. In one of our classes, students attended all-hands meetings at five start-ups and tracked the amount of time each attendee spoke, the number of statements each CEO made, and the number of questions the CEO asked employees. All the meetings were an opportunity for people to check in and ask for help or offer it to others. One CEO was dismayed to learn that during a 15-minute stand-up meeting, he talked more than 50% of the time, made 10 statements, and asked only two questions. But the feedback helped him change: In later meetings his share of airtime dropped to about 30%, and he started asking a lot more questions.
It’s also good to actively seek feedback from people close to you who see you in action and are willing to be candid with you. Ask them to let you know whether you’re too dominating in conversations that would benefit from a diversity of perspectives and whether your presence stifles discussion because people don’t feel comfortable speaking their minds.
Study your team’s norms.
The challenge here isn’t just to identify your team’s default mode; it’s to understand what’s causing it (such as your own behaviors or the team’s history) and how to push members out of their comfort zone and teach them to transition between modes.
The CEO of one management team we worked with was frustrated because members rarely spoke up or debated, even when invited to do so. Our interviews and surveys showed that the team was stuck in the exercise-authority mode, with the CEO dominating discussions and decisions. Though that mode had made sense when the company was navigating a series of crises, including a corporate turnaround and the pandemic, it was now hurting team members’ ability to make contributions, argue over ideas, and innovate. We worked with the CEO and the team to embrace and live the mantra “debate, commit, and act.” We taught them how to use tools such as assigning a different member to serve as devil’s advocate during each meeting. And we introduced a 360-degree feedback system that helped members relearn when and how to speak up and debate openly in team meetings.
If your team has trouble changing modes, look at the agendas for your meetings. Do they clearly indicate when you want to discuss ideas and when it’s time to make a decision?
Other teams have the opposite problem. They can’t stop brainstorming and debating and are still trying to reach consensus long after a decision should have been made and carried out. Their leaders need to step in and force closure, but they don’t. We’ve seen numerous start-ups fail because of this phenomenon. For instance, at one we studied, the two cofounders couldn’t determine which of them should be the CEO—even though investors had asked them to do so— and struggled to make decisions about how to build their product (what dimensions it should be) and get it to market (which segment to target first). With no clear decision-maker, they stagnated in an endless back-and-forth. Frustrated with the stalled product development, their investors pulled the plug.
3. Set Expectations
Skilled leaders aren’t coy or subtle about when to operate in one power mode or the other. They send crystal clear signals about the modes people will work in before meetings, programs, tours, or other gatherings.
Spell out shifts in agendas.
If your team has trouble changing modes, look at the agendas for your last five or six meetings. Did they clearly indicate when you wanted people to generate or discuss ideas and when it was time to make a decision? A good way to do that is to specify “debate” under an agenda item, with the amount of time that will be devoted to the discussion, followed by “commit and act,” with the name of the decision-maker. If a meeting is being held to announce a decision and answer questions about what it means for the team, state that in the invitation, and make it clear the meeting is not a brainstorming session or an occasion for input.
Another way to get employees to shift power modes is to stipulate the purpose of meetings. This is something Massimo Lombardo, who at the time was the director of the Codogno Hospital in the Lombardy region of Italy, did in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. The hospital was hit with a tsunami of patients, which overwhelmed its capacity in terms of beds and staff time. Making matters worse, it took days to process the tests for diagnosing the virus. The hospital’s leaders and staff had to innovate at a time when demands on them were extraordinary. To keep things on track, Lombardo specified which meetings were ones where staff members would receive their marching orders and which were sessions where they should contribute ideas. The daily morning all-staff meeting, when hospital employees gathered to align their plans for the day, was when they’d get their orders. But at debriefing meetings, held twice a day, all employees—from plumbers to nurses to surgeons—were encouraged to share their experiences and propose solutions to problems. At the debriefings Lombardo listened to what all attendees had to say and thanked them for their input, and their ideas were considered seriously.
The approach worked: Patients received the care they needed despite the tough circumstances, and the solutions the group brainstormed in the debriefings helped Codogno and other Italian hospitals it shared them with cope with the Covid crisis.
Use rituals to mark transitions.
Top performers in many fields do this to shift their attention and focus their minds. Wade Boggs, the former third baseman for the Boston Red Sox, ate chicken before each game and wrote the Hebrew symbol for chai (which means “life”) in the dirt every time he went to bat. The tennis star Serena Williams bounces the ball exactly five times before her first serve and two times before her second. The ballerina Suzanne Farrell pinned a small toy mouse inside her leotard, crossed herself twice, and pinched herself twice before going onstage.
When you want input on an idea, don’t use potentially intimidating language such as “Is there anyone who disagrees?”
Our work shows that rituals reduce employees’ anxiety and increase their confidence before high-pressure tasks—and that group rituals enhance the meaning of work and improve group performance. But more to the point, rituals can be a powerful way to indicate shifts from one power mode to another. For instance, as we learned from interviewing them, when U.S. Navy SEAL teams switch from the pure command-and-control mode of missions to after-action reviews—at which everyone is expected to share criticisms, suggestions, and kudos equally—all present take off their stripes and other signs of rank to signal a temporary flattening of the hierarchy.
Avoid sham flattening.
After we introduced the notion of power shifting to one company, an executive (let’s call him Sanjay) shared a story about his boss (we’ll call her Aretha): Again and again, Aretha would ask Sanjay to run a meeting and make a key decision. Then, at the 11th hour, just as the decision was about to be made, she would jump in and make it herself. Such behavior is rampant in organizations where leaders struggle to give away real control but believe—or at least behave as if—making false promises about empowerment will placate followers. Their hollow words backfire, however, because teams learn that they can’t trust those leaders. So during periods of promised flatness, members stay silent or go through the motions as they wait for the boss to—yet again—snatch back control.
4. Reinforce Shifts with Words and Deeds
When coaching leaders we use the hippopotamus as a metaphor: Leaders have to know when to rise out of the water and exercise their power and when to cede it to others and sink down, leaving just their eyes above the surface to discreetly watch their teams. The hippo metaphor helps leaders escape the “always out of the water” or “always underwater” mode and provide their teams with the right level of power at the right time. But to do that effectively, leaders must be mindful of the words they choose, their body language, and how or whether they participate in particular meetings.
Lead by example.
In the best meetings we’ve studied, the coordinated power shifts across team members are automatic, instant, and graceful. At one multinational health care company, for example, the CEO kicked off a monthly meeting with his 11-person executive team with a few inspiring reminders of the bigger vision the company was seeking to realize. Then he passed the baton to the chief marketing officer, who shared her goal for the discussion: making a final decision about the new brand logo. She then invited all in the room to speak their minds—which prompted a barrage of facts, recommendations, and concerns. The CEO explicitly minimized his power as the discussion continued— he moved to the back of the room and made sure to speak last. At the end of this burst of flatness, the CMO took charge again and made the decision on the final version of the new brand logo. Then the CEO took over and led the team in a discussion of the next agenda item. The team was effective because all its members were adept at assuming, sharing, and giving away power—and understood when it was time to make the next transition.
Tell people that right now it’s time to change modes, using simple, clear language and maybe even raising your voice a bit. The CEO of a global technology company we work with does this well. He routinely announces, “Let’s create a moment for brainstorming” or “We’ve heard many perspectives; let’s now turn to making a decision.”
That said, you need to make such interjections thoughtfully; the wrong words may sow fear and confusion, while the right ones will provide clarity and comfort. When you want input and debate about your idea, don’t use potentially intimidating language such as “Is there anyone who disagrees?” That can create the impression that you’ve made up your mind and are just going through the motions of asking for others’ opinions. Instead you might say, “Does anyone have a different point of view?” or “Is there a different way to look at this decision?” Such seemingly small tweaks in wording can have a big effect.
Use body language.
Your nonverbal behavior can reinforce or undermine your message. Asking, “Does anyone have a different view?” with your arms crossed while standing at the head of the table (while everyone else is sitting) won’t be as effective as asking the same question while seated at the middle of the table with your arms uncrossed and a slight smile on your face. And simply making eye contact with someone in the room can serve as an invitation for that person to speak.
You can also follow the example of one adept manager we met, who had been given a leadership award by his company. When he wanted all his team members to jump in and solve a problem presented by a colleague, he’d say something like “You all figure this out—you know way more than I do” and then move from the front of the room to the back.
Read the room.
Effective leaders know when a shift from command and control to empowerment is in order. Take Steve Kerr, the coach of the Golden State Warriors, who in the 2014–2015 season had the most wins of any first-year coach in the history of the National Basketball Association, culminating in the team’s first NBA championship in 40 years. Over the next seven years the Warriors went on to win three more championships.
At different points during a season, when Kerr feels his players need to be reenergized, he gives them the opportunity to decide how to play. That’s right—they decide the strategy to use during the game, a task Kerr is usually in charge of as their coach. He told us, “I read the room. I can tell when they need a boost in motivation because the season is long and requires much persistence. Those are the moments where I give them power.”
Leave the room.
If you’re the most powerful person in the room, no matter what you do or say, your mere presence can be intimidating. Your authority alone can squelch comment and debate and create awkward silences after someone offers an idea and everyone waits for you to express an opinion. One possible remedy: Leave—or never enter—the room. At Pixar, Catmull asked Steve Jobs not to show up at brain-trust meetings because he felt that Jobs’s presence would stifle the flow of suggestions made by the filmmakers.
In October 1962, President John F. Kennedy’s advisers were debating how to respond to the Soviet Union’s efforts to place nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, just 100 miles from Florida. As the psychologist Irving L. Janis recounts in his 1982 book, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Kennedy gathered some 20 experts with diverse viewpoints and knowledge. To encourage them to express their opinions and avoid groupthink, he divided them into smaller teams and asked each team to develop possible solutions. Then, following the advice of his brother Robert Kennedy, who “felt there was less true give-and-take with the president in the room,” JFK deliberately chose not to attend some of the team meetings.
. . .
The key to successful leadership is knowing when to get in the way, when to get out of the way, and how to send crystal clear signals to your followers about which mode to operate in right now. As Tommy Lasorda, the late, great manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, put it, “Managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly, you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.”
- LG Lindy Greer is a professor of management and organizations at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, where she directs the Sanger Leadership Center. lindredg
- Francesca Gino is a behavioral scientist and the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She is the author of Rebel Talent and Sidetracked. francescagino
- Robert I. Sutton is an organizational psychologist and a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. He has written seven books, including Good Boss, Bad Boss and (with Huggy Rao) Scaling