Are They Stepping on Your Toes? Grow Bigger Feet.

Posted 08.20.2010

Montypythonfeet One of the common things that keeps managers from becoming leaders is spending too much time and attention protecting their turf. Over time, their attention gets really internally focused on protecting and keeping order in their own little world. If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings movies, it’s a little like Gollum maniacally coveting the ring while murmuring, “My precious, my precious.”  When managers are in that mode, they become blind to the bigger opportunities around them. Seizing those bigger opportunities is one of the differences between being a leader with management skills and just managing.

A lot of my coaching engagements with high potential leaders focus on that distinction.  The client has made their reputation by managing something really, really well.  The leadership opportunity comes when the range of expectations facing them becomes so broad that the only way they can succeed is by letting go of some of that turf they’ve been so carefully protecting.  When they make that shift, good things usually happen.  They have more bandwidth to see what’s going on around them and identify opportunities to contribute and lead on a wider range of issues.  At the same time, the people who felt constrained or frustrated by the turf protection approach become more productive because they have more freedom to think and decide on the best courses of action.  

The positive aspects of this kind of shift were summed up well by the colleague of a client I worked with a few years ago.  As I was conducting the closing round of feedback, this person told me that he used to be in regular conflict with my client about stepping on each other’s toes.  That changed, he said, when my client started focusing on contributing on broader issues in the organization and grew more influential and respected as a result.  The upshot, his colleague told me, was that “his feet have gotten so big he doesn’t feel me stepping on his toes anymore.”

What’s your experience?  Are most managers more concerned with their toes getting stepped on or growing bigger feet?  What’s your best advice for managers who want to increase the positive impact of their leadership footprint?