I learned this lesson many years ago when I took over a struggling project. The team was demoralized, needed clear guidance, and an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities. In addition to continuously encouraging them to leave the past in the past and to focus on moving forward, I also quickly identified the key individuals who could help deliver the program. I gave them clear direction, established expectations, and then let them loose. At the same time, I had to make some hard personnel decisions as others were not performing, and I did not have the confidence or the time to see if they could do the job under new circumstances. I recognized quickly that if I did not trust them to do their job, I was going to have to do it for them, since the results needed to be delivered. There was only so much I personally could take on, and thus realized it was better to part ways in a respectful, caring, and transparent manner than try to provide a space for improvement. This approach has been proven time and again to be the correct one.

2. Listening and Hearing

Listening can be an easily overlooked tool but one that when done well creates a safe environment. There have been many studies over the years estimating that we spend anywhere from a third to half our time listening. But the problem is we don’t retain very much. In one study, researchers found that listeners only retained about half what they’d heard immediately after someone finished talking. So, what does this mean as a leader?

Listening creates the space needed to do good work. The purpose of communication is not to message but to engage and this requires listening. For me this means being focused and attentive in all meetings. I make it a point to have my laptop or mobile phone closed during meetings so that everyone knows I am 100 percent present. And I make sure to ask questions, to clarify what I’m hearing or to prompt more discussion. Then, when needed and appropriate, I can provide guidance or my point of view.

Perhaps even more important, I have learned that I cannot listen only to those that agree with me, but I need to actively seek out dissenting opinions and thoughts. It can be uncomfortable, but I recommend listening to those that challenge you, stretch you, and develop you. By seeing these opinions or thoughts as opportunity rather than opposition, you can build stronger solutions. The work we do is too important to take the easy path!

3. Leading from Behind

The theory of leading from behind was proposed and championed by Linda Hill of the Harvard Business School after reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. In it Mandela likens leaders to shepherds directing flocks from behind. Some sheep will move ahead, the flock following those out front, but it is the shepherd who is overseeing and directing the flock. For me, this is the very heart of true leadership. This method gives others the space to emerge, empower, lead, and innovate. And, it provides me the space to support their initiatives but remain focused on the bigger picture and direction.

While not exhaustive, these three tools guide my efforts as a leader. As I have experienced over the years, the power from empowering those around me, while sometimes daunting, leads to success — for the organization and for our staff. At Chemonics, our global workforce has chosen to work with us because they believe in our mission. They want meaning and purpose in their work lives and they want to contribute to something larger than themselves. And, trying to solve complex development challenges provide that opportunity and require us to tap into the power of our collective genius. I am continuously inspired by the people I work with who find new ways, each day, to help make our world better. Being a leader that allows and encourages them to flourish is what I strive for each day.