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The Effectiveness of Doing Nothing as a Leader

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The USS Santa Fe submarine The USS Santa Fe submarine United States Navy file photo

“OK, now here’s what you need to do. You’ve got this great new position, leading your own team, with all of its requisite responsibilities and risks. What you need to do is forget about what helped make you successful and do what doesn’t come naturally. Instead, you need to adopt a philosophy and a style of behavior that runs counter to all of your instincts. As a leader, you should not only do less of the everyday work, your goal should be to do nothing.”

How many people will buy this advice? I can say that most people react skeptically when they encounter the idea that leaders are more effective when they follow the advice in my book, Do Nothing! How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader.

Many people have told me that they have tried doing nothing—usually in limited ways or because they had no other choice—and they’ve been surprised that it actually works. E.g., “I was knocked out by the flu and didn’t go in to the office, or even call to see how things were going. When I got back, everything had gone smoothly: people had stepped up and did great.” Or “I now rotate the leader of our team meetings. It’s amazing to see how well my team members do. I would never have guessed.” Or, more rare, “I took a vacation without calling in—for 10 days. Every time I thought about checking in with the team, I worked hard to resist the temptation. When I got back, they had dealt with a new emergency flawlessly, without me. This was a bit disconcerting, but it was also really rewarding to know that they could perform so well on their own.”

Readers and friends have also sent me articles that provide great examples of do nothing leadership. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve gotten two. The first was from Andy Kaufman of the Institute for Leadership Excellence and Development. He sent me an article by David Marquet, the author of Turn the Ship Around! Marquet’s primary focus was on the wonderful, subtle signals we use when we speak. He notes that:

“Onboard the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine where I had the privilege of serving as captain, one of the decisions we needed to make and continuously validate was where we should put the submarine. Various members of the crew had different parts of the answer. The sonar officer knew about the bottom topography and where the best listening was. The intelligence officer was familiar with the most recent reports on enemy movements, and so on. There was always inconsistent and conflicting information . . . but getting all the information out was the hard part. Once that was done, the decision tended to be easy.”

He goes on to say:

“One of the leadership principles we practiced was to push authority to as low a level as possible, and perhaps even a bit more . . . In the past, officers would “request permission to” perform operations such as submerge the ship. Regulations stipulated that the captain approve these operations. In the past, the captain would then respond with, “submerge the ship” and the officer would repeat, “submerge the ship, aye.” We changed this. Officers stopped asking permission and instead stated “I intend to . . .” The effect was immediate and profound. Now, officers stated, “Captain, I intend to submerge the ship” and I would respond, “very well.” That was the perfect end state.

Initially I had a lot of questions for the officers about whether it was safe, whether the preconditions were met, whether the team was ready, and whether it was the right thing to do. With time, I asked fewer and fewer questions as the officers learned to provide that necessary information at the same time they stated their intent. The immediate and obvious benefit was that with this small shift in language, just a few words really, the officers became the driving force behind the submarine’s operations . . . They loved it. Moving people from “request permission” to “I intend to . . .” raised them one rung on the ladder of control, from passive followers doing what they were told . . . to proactive engaged leaders, crafting the future.” He concludes by saying, “the next time one of your subordinates tries to trick you into telling them what to do, take the time to ask them what they think you should do. Then be quiet and listen. With time, these incremental changes will have a profound impact not only on your organization’s effectiveness, but on the lives of its people.”

This is a wonderful example of do nothing leadership: Determine what people can do, and let them do it. They will often astound you.

The second story came from Jiunwen Wang, one of my former Ph.D. students. Jiunwen finished her degree and took a research position in Singapore. She also joined a choir. Her musical interests led her to an article that is a perfect example of do nothing leadership. In fact, in this instance, a remarkable leader did nothing at all—literally nothing.

Eric Whitacre is a Grammy-winning American composer and conductor who is known for his choral, orchestral and wind ensemble music, and for his “Virtual Choir” projects, which bring individual voices from around the globe into an online choir. He wrote this piece and posted it online:

“I had an unexpected, profound learning experience in Minneapolis a few weeks ago. I was conducting Equus in the final rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale. The first performance was that night so time was tight and the pressure was on. Even though I wrote it, Equus is easily the most difficult piece I have ever conducted. There are a lot of subtle rhythm games in the music which make the beat feel like it is in one place when in fact it is in another. Can’t imagine what the composer was smoking when he composed that damn thing. Anyway, during this final rehearsal there are 16 measures I just can’t solve. (It’s the sections at letters ‘K’ and ‘L’ for those of you who know the piece). During earlier rehearsals I had tried breaking it down and rehearsing the individual parts slowly, but the orchestra and chorus are still struggling to play it as an ensemble and I can feel the musicians becoming frustrated. Worst of all, it is becoming very clear that the only problem is the conductor. Me. I am actually confusing them with my attempt to keep them together. So I say to them, “I’d like to try an experiment. Let’s play it again, and as soon as we get to letter ‘K’ I am going to put down my hands and stop conducting. I’ll start conducting again at letter ‘M’. . . let’s just see what happens.” A few looks of hesitation from the orchestra, but everyone seems game.

So we take off, and when we get to letter ‘K’ I put my hands down and do nothing but listen. All 200 musicians play it perfectly, as crisp and thrilling as I imagined it would be when I wrote it. And we did the same thing for both concerts: I would get to letter ‘K’, put my hands down and do a little dance, smile and the players would take the reins. It was such a powerful lesson for me, to simply let go and allow the experts to do what they do best. And it was a great reminder for me as a conductor: The players are making the music, not the conductor, and when the musicians are confident, prepared and focused, the best thing you can do for them as a leader is get the hell out of their way and let ’em dance.”

I can’t think of a better argument for leaders to do less, and ultimately, to do nothing. I hope it stimulates more leaders to try this simple, effective strategy.

J. Keith Murnighan is the Harold H. Hines Jr. Distinguished Professor of Risk Management at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. He writes the leadership blog Do Nothing!

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