Subtle Leadership: What Does This Mean?

When leading a group of individuals, you can either be a dictator and make demands on what needs to be done and how to do it- or you can tell your team the end result you want to accomplish and allow them to achieve the result you want- through their ideas/creativity. Friends and fans know […]
Shane Hoefer

Written By Shane Hoefer

On December 16, 2021

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When leading a group of individuals, you can either be a dictator and make demands on what needs to be done and how to do it- or you can tell your team the end result you want to accomplish and allow them to achieve the result you want- through their ideas/creativity.

Friends and fans know that I am a staunch advocate for subtle leadership. While the stereotype of leaders, particularly in the trades, is a rough and tough man with harsh things to say and little tolerance for BS, I don’t think that is the most effective way to lead a team or get a project done. Not only is it ineffective in motivating employees, but it is a draining way to work for the leader. I don’t know about you, but I get worn out and hoarse if I cuss and yell too much. It is far simpler to tell my team what I want to achieve and let them figure it out. In other words, I think it is easier to let people do what I hired them for.

Here is the thing: Have you ever had a boss with a stick up his rear? Do you feel like having him breathe down your neck motivated you? Or made work even remotely enjoyable? Probably not. The same is true when you’re running a construction company. Being forced to do someone else’s work without input in how it gets done is miserable, especially when you know there is a better way to do it. It might seem easier to dictate how you want things done, but in a business of any size, it’s likely you don’t know how to do an employee’s job as efficiently as the person you hired to do it full time. Worse, the more you push a dictatorial way of leading, the less likely your employees will be to disagree with you.

Give Your Employees Room to Grow

I spent so much time trying to convince employees to do things my way. I wasted energy trying to persuade others that my way was the best way. Sometimes I managed to convince them, sometimes we walked away in disagreement, even if they didn’t vocally disagree. After years of trying to lead this way, I finally started asking my employees, “What would you do instead?”

This question changed our dynamic. Rather than trying to persuade or argue, I was listening to an employee enthusiastically explain their idea. They want to prove their idea works, and they are usually willing to work hard to make that happen. I started to use this method constantly, even when I knew for a fact that my way was better. Sometimes I wanted an employee to learn from their own mistakes.

For example, I had a head manager of a sales team struggling with two individuals who only did the bare minimum in their positions. They never attempted to improve. My head manager poured all of his energy into these two individuals, trying to get them to improve. He knew that the business needed to grow, and if it was going to grow- these two salespeople needed to grow with it.

I told the manager that he was wasting his time with these two individuals. They weren’t interested in growing. With 27 years of experience, I could see the red flags in these employees that showed they didn’t want to be helped or coached in how to improve. I let that manager attempt to change these employees for a year. Unlike the two problem individuals, this manager allowed me to coach him from the sidelines and listened when I suggested reasons they should be let go. Eventually, the manager learned on his own that some employees just aren’t a good fit for our company, regardless of how much you help them.

It was painful to watch him struggle with these individuals in his department, but in the end, it made our manager stronger in his position, as he has the experience to recognize similar characters in the future. While it hindered our growth for a little while, I know he won’t make the same mistake again.
That means the time and energy we spent on those employees wasn’t wasted; it gave us a better manager.

The moral of this story is that employees need space to work and to learn. Allowing small failures provides valuable learning through trial and error. The successes we gain from allowing employees to experiment with what works may very well pay off down the road.

Ask and Support

Personally, I never dictate our growth plans. Instead, I ask my employees, “What are your plans for growth next year?” Then we work together to make sure that plan is implemented appropriately. While some new leaders or managers need guidance on what plans are viable, I always try to work with their ideas because I know people will work harder to implement an idea that reflects on them than they will to implement an idea that only reflects on me.

I’ve personally seen the benefits of cultivating this leadership style in the company, from top to bottom. Letting employees do their work their way means putting the people who are most in contact with the day-to-day conditions of their job in charge, letting them create the most efficient processes, and giving them the freedom to create success.

This was recently apparent to me when visiting one of our lumberyards. The yard was in pristine condition and running flawlessly. The upper management gave freedom to their operation team to achieve the results they were asked to achieve themselves. This allowed the operations team to strategize the outcome. They set up their own procedures and designated responsibilities in a way that had never been done before. I saw how each individual foreman took great pride in their role in achieving the end result. I saw how much happier their team was when we allowed them to participate in the company’s success. This is the power of subtle leadership.


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