Our focus as leaders is on vision and relationships, not on tasks.
In other words, we set the conditions for people to succeed, then we get out of their way. This allows them to create innovative solutions to the problems they face in their individual tasks, and to find the best ways to combine their work with others. When we create these conditions, then the members of the group can perform their work in a way that achieves excellence.
At times, it seems there is too much work and not enough people, so we pick a specific individual task and do it. This is not necessarily terrible, but it has some very significant effects — none of them good.
First, if we have to jump in to perform a job, we have already failed as leaders. Our role was to plan and prepare our people to do the work required to accomplish the vision. If they can’t do that, we let them down. In fact, the more prepared our people are to resolve issues and reallocate work, the more effective our leadership is. In a perfect world, we’d just walk around and watch everyone do exactly what they need to do, and the vision come together. If that’s not happening, we have failed to do the pre-work that the group deserves.
The more significant effects of us jumping in are upon relationships within the group, however.
When we replace an individual contributor, we prevent the individuals who make up the team from learning how to perform the task and how to fit the task into their other responsibilities. Learning requires the openness and safety to take risks and try new behaviors. It requires guidance and ideas about how to perform the work differently, but also space for the learner to actually do the performing — not us as an expert. When we jump in, we deny the group these critical factors and prevent learning from happening. We solve the problem instead of showing the team how to solve it.
We also show the members of the group that we do not trust or value their contribution to this task. In the moment, it feels like we are doing something good: we’re getting our hands dirty, just like the rest of the team. But this act of solidarity has a dark side. If we have to do the task, and we have the time to do it instead of our leadership duties, then why give the task to individuals at all? If the team is so bad at their jobs that we have to step in instead of helping them get better, then why should they try harder? In this way, we devalue the work of individuals, create a break from the story of vision, and damage the relationships within the group.
Finally, when we get into a team member’s work, we lose sight of the bigger picture and we make ourselves only as useful as that person. We are no longer a leader, we are just another worker. No matter how awesome we are, we as human beings can only perform one thing at a time. If we are wrists-deep in a task, we are not watching the organization. Since this is likely a moment of high stress and heavy workloads, our leadership is missing at exactly the time it is needed most. This is a terrible situation for us to create, and we are creating more problems in the near future.
If we need better or different people, then we address that deficiency through performance management and hiring/firing. When we align these two practices with our vision, we will have the right people in place: people who can do the job. And, therefore, there will be no need for us to jump in.
If we have no choice but to perform someone else’s individual tasks, we have already failed as leaders. As soon as the crisis is past, we need to assess the organization and understand why, and then fix the situation through leadership and not through the emergency bandaid of performing tasks.