Some lessons about effective leadership can be learned at business school or through leadership training. Others can be extrapolated from personal experiences that go all the way back to our earliest bosses—the teachers we had in elementary school.
Current research on employee autonomy shows that employees who are empowered and trusted to find their own solutions to problems are happier, more productive, and less likely to leave for another job. And it doesn’t take a raft of research to conclude that micromanagement is toxic.
I could have told you that when I was 7.
Come back with me to the early 1970s, when bell bottoms were cool, appliances were avocado green, and ABBA was hip the first time around.
I was an artistic child. My parents stocked crayons and markers by the hundreds, and reams of outdated letterhead from Dad’s factory came home to me. I probably covered the backs of thousands of sheets of linen-textured paper with horses and princesses and houses and birds and butterflies and witches and dragons and flowers long before I hit Kindergarten.
In short: I really and truly loved creating colorful, pretty things with crayons and markers.
So…you wouldn’t think those very items would be the source of my first serious conduct infraction in Catholic school, would you?
Fast-forward to First Grade. I don’t remember a whole lot about it (I apparently shipped from the factory with an “Eternal-Sunshine-of-the-Spotless-Mind”-esque unhappy memory eraser). But one thing I do recall—and that I have used all my professional life as a cautionary tale—is the Lemon Yellow Incident.
First Grade curriculum being what it was, I was a bored child much of the day. Boredom does not make for excellent educational experiences. In reading class, I was frequently reprimanded for reading ahead while other children struggled to sound out words I’d already learned in Kindergarten.
And then there was…religion class. The goal: Learn about the life of Jesus. The primary teaching tool: a coloring book depicting the life of Jesus. Our religion teacher (let’s call her Sister X) insisted—demanded—that we color pages about of life of Jesus. You know, the usual: Manger. Wise men. Flight into Egypt. Wowing the elders in the temple. Getting scolded by Mary for wowing the elders.
This was, in the world according to Sister X, THE ONLY WAY to learn about the life of Jesus.
You’d think a kid with a 64-color box of crayons (built-in sharpener!) would be all over that assignment, right?
But no. No, see, I was already drawing my own pictures. I didn’t do coloring. What would be the point of just taking crayons to pictures somebody else had drawn? I could draw Mary and Joseph and Jesus and the Magi. Coloring was…stupid.
I ultimately handled this assignment in the way I would deal with unpleasant and seemingly irrational demands for the rest of my life: I procrastinated until the last possible minute.
The day the first coloring installment was due, I grabbed the first crayon my hand fell on—Lemon Yellow—and I scribbled all over every single page in the whole book. A year’s worth of pages, blanketed willy-nilly in one color, with no regard for lines and very little regard for anything else.
”There, Sister X!” I can hear my 7-year-old self thinking. “The stupid coloring book is stupid colored on every stupid page. Stupid.”
Now, technically, I had, in fact, completed the task. I had applied color on each assigned page. I hadn’t done so particularly well, or carefully, or attentively, and I certainly hadn’t paid any attention whatsoever to the scene I was scribbling over, so the entire point of the assignment (learn about the life of Jesus) was lost on me. But I had, in my own mind, done exactly what was required and given Sister X what she’d asked for.
Suffice it to say, this did not go over well.
Here’s the thing: Given the freedom to make artwork based on incidents from the life of Jesus, I’d probably have ended up creating a totally overblown, intricately illustrated, hand-sewn-with-yarn-lining little booklet. But ordered to Do Task Y According to Method Z, I shut down. I had no personal investment in the task, and could see no good reason to apply myself.
So how does this all lead back to management and leadership training?
With very rare exceptions, every employee brings unique talents and creativity to the workplace. Exceptional leaders create room for each team member to use those skills to meet the organization’s goals and solve problems in ways that may be unpredictable, but are nonetheless productive. They let people know what needs to be done, but they don’t prescribe how to do it, in excruciating, step-by-step detail.
Meanwhile, not-so-exceptional leaders—the ones who assign tasks and prescribe precise methods of completing them—are the Sister Xs of the workplace, demanding strict obedience and compliance while frequently losing sight of the bigger picture.
Leader Effectiveness Training teaches skills and tools that help good leaders communicate with their people clearly. That is an indispensable foundation for productive workplaces that thrive on shared responsibility, autonomy, and appropriate problem ownership.