Inspire Transformational Change by Not Giving So Much Guidance

Think about the unit you’re in or the team you’re on. Do you have the freedom to contribute your own ideas? Does the boss ask for your input in solving problems or does he simply tell you what to do? It’s safe to say that you want the freedom to add value. You want to feel like your contribution actually matters. You want a hand in solving the problem, not just in executing a solution. Such environments encourage creative thought and ultimately lead to better performance.

Why, then, do leaders flip so quickly to “transmit guidance” mode when the team faces a problem? Why do leaders start issuing solutions instead of asking for them? Why do leaders see challenges as opportunities to showcase their own intellect instead of develop the intellect of those they lead?


U.S. Marine Cpls. Armondo Cortez, left, and Estevan D. Hernandeza discuss their plan for dismantling the command operation center during the retrograde of Patrol Base Boldak in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, Aug. 15, 2014. Cortez, a data network specialist, and Hernandez, a telephone switchboard and personal computer intermediate repairer, are assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment. Link to photo.

“In my experience…”

In the military, I think this happens for a few reasons. First, the universal professional development timeline means that leaders will have almost always traveled the road their subordinates are on. They’ve “been there and done that” and have readymade answers and guidance as a result.

Second, the military places a high premium on experience. Leaders feel that their answers (and actions) are the best answers because they were promoted (validated) based on that performance. Leaders forget that there are many ways to solve a problem, many roads to each destination.

And third, the risk associated with military operations is too great to accept less than the best analysis, preparation, and performance. Interestingly, this need to safeguard operations often leads to a decline in trust, as leaders are less and less comfortable absorbing subordinate risk without significant backbriefs and guidance in return.

Here’s the problem. When leaders spearhead every encounter by issuing guidance, they rob their followers of a critical learning pathway. It’s the pathway that requires followers to think critically about the problem, research it, experiment with various methods, and perhaps make a mistake on the road to an acceptable solution. It’s the process that takes people on an intellectual journey of discovery instead of simply following a recipe for someone else’s success.

Drawing Insight Instead of Issuing It

Time is another reason leaders choose to give direct guidance instead of letting followers navigate their own path. “I don’t have time to let you learn this on your own, so here’s how you will do it.” That’s the easy (not to mention inefficient) way to avoid developing others. If leaders would spend a moment thinking about how they can draw insight out of others instead of imparting it, they’d see that it can be done in the course of a single conversation.

Here is a model to consider every time you have the opportunity to issue guidance or tell people how to solve a problem, but instead want to give them a transformational growth experience. It’s a Socratic method of leading and partly inspired by CAPT (Ret) David Marquet’s book, Turn the Ship Around!

  1. Help them see the problem on their own. Less experienced followers don’t know what problems to look for, much less how to answer them. This is where your experience is most helpful. Help your followers frame the problem but resist the urge to tell them how to solve it. Instead, ask questions like, “What problem do you see? What factors must we consider? What other players are involved? What’s the risk if we don’t solve it right away, or at all? What organizational energy will it require to solve it? What do you think I [the leader] am thinking about when considering this problem?”
  2. Give them the freedom to brainstorm solutions. Once your team has departed their intellectual comfort zones to explore the problem, it’s time to see what answers they can come up with. Remove the typical constraints on the problem (like time, rank, and funding), which will allow them to leverage their own experience and spark the most creativity. Sitting silent while followers work out a problem on their own may be frustrating for leaders who see a clear solution and just want to keep moving forward. The process, however, is invaluable for giving your followers a personal experience that grows them.
  3. Issue broad intent, not specific guidance. When it’s time to point them in the direction you intent to go, issue broad intent that grants your followers flexibility in execution. Patton said, “Never tell your people how to do things. Tell them what to do and let them inspire you with their ingenuity.” But that’s not enough. Just give them an endstate, a set of acceptable conditions, then let them figure out exactly how to meet them. What you’ll find is that yours is not the only way to solve the problem.

Encourage Intellectual Initiative

There are several powerful benefits to choosing this method of leading and developing. First, you force people to think on their own and show intellectual initiative, a critical skill for winning in a complex operating environment. Second, you encourage creative input from everyone on the team, which results in a climate of contribution and usually a better solution than a single person would have generated alone.

Third, through the questions you ask and the guidance you choose not to give them, you teach followers to think like you, the boss. You teach them to see the problem from your perspective, which will not only enable them to meet your intent, but will prepare them to succeed in future assignments. And finally, by letting followers try to solve the problem on their own, you expose their capability, their thought processes, and their gaps in development. This allows you to identify where they lack experience or knowledge, then shape future coaching to grow them accordingly.

The next time your followers come to you with a problem, resist the urge to issue guidance. See if there is an opportunity to turn the situation into a coaching event that would imprint a more permanent lesson than if you simply told them what to do. Doing so will inspire intellectual rigor, generate better ideas, and create an empowered culture where followers feel their ideas truly matter.

To get a glimpse of how I developed the ideas for this post, check out this video I made in the middle of a run. When the ideas start flowing, you gotta capture them right away!

Questions for Leaders

  1. In what ways could you create more opportunities for your followers to solve problems?
  2. How much more effective would your organization be if your team members showed more intellectual initiative?
  3. What mindset shift must you make to see problems as growth opportunities instead of chances for you to issue guidance?

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Be sure to check out A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas and Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, fantastic books to help you bring out the best in your team.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Chris Russell

    Good points but be careful not to use this approach with the wrong subordinates or it will come back to haunt you.