Know When To Step Aside

Particularly in times of uncertainty, great leadership means making space for talent, opportunity and creativity to flourish.

​​It was a beautiful day. So, I grabbed my water bottle, donned my mask, and headed out for a hike. I chose a rugged trail up the mountain, which at times, was narrow, steep, and hazardous. This made passing other hikers a little tricky. To maintain an appropriate social distance, I actively looked ahead to know when to step aside.

These days, stepping aside is a public health imperative. In business, knowing when to step aside can be a powerful leadership tool. By definition, stepping aside creates space for something else. In my experience, it also builds trust among your team and colleagues. These are compelling reasons to step aside in any context. Today, when so much is in flux and people are working well outside their comfort zones, knowing when to step aside may even be mission critical.

Three other reasons to add value by stepping aside:

1. Develop talent.

Developing talent is one of the leader’s most important jobs. People learn more effectively by doing; they need time to experiment and practice new skills and behaviors. When you step aside, you give your people a chance to grow. Sometimes, stepping aside means coaching or guiding your staff member along the way. At other times, you hand over the joysticks; let your people fly solo. Doing so removes the added pressure of a boss’ or leader’s immediate critique, thus strengthening the person’s confidence even as they demonstrate their competence.

Doing something for the first time is one of the most developmental opportunities someone can have. And for most of us, today’s work necessitates a number of “first times”. As a leader, leverage the “first time” to develop talent. Once you’ve taken a decision, step aside to empower your people to take the lead within the framework or context you’ve provided.

2. Make room for opportunity.

Great opportunities can come from anywhere. The more uncertain our environment, the more important it is for leaders to provide clear, high-level strategic guidance that focuses on the desired outcomes. Leaders who know when to step aside open the door for others to do things in unconventional ways to achieve those outcomes. Perhaps transfer ownership of the work to an internal task force of stakeholders who can contribute to the project. With that freedom, people may discover new ways of working, alternative solutions, or new things that make work easier or add value to customers. They may also identify different connections or partnerships that spark other business prospects. Today is an extraordinary time; stepping aside can make room for opportunity.

3. Allow creativity to flourish.

Often, when a leader joins the conversation, their position in the organization enters first. In other words, what they say may be heard as coming from the “boss” (or more senior person). In my experience, even the most open and inclusive leaders encounter that. No matter what the leader says or does to encourage new ideas, their positional authority plays a role in the way their message and behavior is received. Knowing when to step aside – or when to leave the room or project – gives license to the group to expand their thinking or individuals to take ownership in a new way. Plus, joint problem solving helps build or reinforce connections among team members, which is even more important to do deliberately when your staff is working remotely. In turn, this allows creativity to flourish as diverse voices and experiences contribute to the outcome.

Knowing when to step aside adds value to your business in any time. In the extraordinary time we now inhabit, stepping aside is even more important. Doing so effectively creates space for people, opportunities, and ideas to thrive.

Tara J. Rethore
Tara Rethore works with CEOs and Boards to make strategy real and actionable: that’s Strategy for Real™. In industry and as a consultant, Tara has done this across a variety of industries, globally, and in mission-driven and for-profit contexts. She knows what it takes to succeed and how to make strategy real. Currently, Tara serves on the Boards of D+R International, Inc. and JHS Scholarship Fund.