By Ian Sampson
Space and context interrelate. If context is the story which leaders describe to allow work to be done, space is the amount of freedom within that story that followers have to do their work.
Like most mothers, my mother was an amazing woman and an effective leader in our family and the communities in which we lived as kids. Both Mum and Dad created a big context for me to grow up in. It boiled down to having the freedom to achieve a lot; to be a success in whatever I wanted to do and not to be held down by any of my limitations, unless I chose to.
One good example occurred when I was about 12 or 13. Mum knew we would get into mischief but she gave me enough leeway to decide how much risk I would take for myself in what I did. I suppose she also relied on my timidity not to lead me into any really life-threatening situations.
But sure enough, one day I thought that was exactly what I had done. A friend and I were playing down at the creek with tuppenny bungers. These were great monster firecrackers about the size of a big cigar. The trick was to drop it into the water so that it exploded just before the water put the fuse out. It was a great lark and probably did uncounted ecological damage to the frogs, tadpoles and little fish in the creek.
All went well until I somehow set one up wrongly. I pulled the wick out of one side of the bunger to give me the extra time I needed, asked my friend to light it and even before I could pull back my arm to throw it into the water, the bunger exploded in my face. All was black and silent for a while and then I started yelling “Dennis, am I dead!? Dennis, am I dead!?”
Soon enough I discovered that I was still on this earth and that all my limbs and faculties were intact. We shared a panic stricken laugh and learned a powerful lesson.
What I didn’t know was that Mum had wandered down to the creek just as the drama was unfolding. It must have taken a lot of self-control but when she saw what happened and that I was OK, she stood back behind a fence and let me go at it again. What a gift!
Misleaders don’t give enough space for their people. They create fear by forcing their people to work too narrowly, to limit their chances to learn and to discover the limits of acceptable risk. Often misleaders have a view that they are the brightest globe in the light shop: they have the knowledge of what is best in every situation and all that is required is for the employees to be employed in doing what they are told to do in the narrowest detail. Could any misleadership practice be calculated to do more harm to the spirit, intelligence and will of workers than to be treated in this way?
Good leaders offer continuously updated, clear and compelling contexts for their people to work within. They also give space. A great way to do this is to adopt the discipline of providing clear accountability and continuously review them with those for whom you are responsible.
A great leader I worked with years ago spent time on the job every day. He always discussed people’s activities with them in the context of their accountability. When their actions were consistent he praised them. When there was a misalignment he worked immediately with them to address what was holding the person back from being enabled to do a great job.