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The Counterintuitive Art of Leading by Letting Go

Micromanagers don't inspire those around them. Instead, aim to push authority as far down in the hierarchy as possible.

One of the fundamental inconsistencies we see in workplaces today is the gap between leaders’ desire for “empowered and engaged” employees and what actually ends up happening during the personal interactions of leaders with employees. Often, these actions inadvertently have the effect of reducing the employee’s drive toward empowerment.

The problem is that in the heat of the moment of conversation, our leadership brains are wired to take control and give direction. It feels good. We get to solve problems, reduce uncertainty by giving instructions, and raise our level of status and authority.

Unfortunately what feels good for us feels bad for our people. No one ever did anything awesome or great because they were told to. The degree to which we order people around suppresses any opportunity for greatness.

No one ever did anything awesome or great because they were told to. 

On the contrary, telling people what to do is the opposite of responsibility. When we tell people what to do, we should preface it with “I absolve you of all responsibility for what happens here, and what I want you to do is …” The danger is people are “doing” their jobs, not “thinking” them.


In the early 1960s Stanley Milgram wanted to learn how susceptible people were to doing what they were told and what their willingness to obey an authority figure was, even when ordered to take actions that would hurt someone else.

The experiment went like this: Participants were placed in the role of a “teacher” who administered electric shocks to a “learner.” Every time the learner answered a question incorrectly, the teacher was supposed to administer greater and greater levels of electric shock. The settings on the machine at the higher settings indicated that the learner would be harmed at those levels.

The teachers were led to believe the learner was in a different room although there was no learner and no one was shocked. Milgram played recordings to make it sound like the learner was in a great deal of pain and wanted to end the experiment.

Despite these protests, many participants continued the experiment when the authority figure urged them to, increasing the voltage after each wrong answer until some eventually administered what would be lethal electric shocks.

Similar experiments conducted since the original have provided nearly identical results, indicating that people are willing to go against their consciences if they are being told to do so by authority figures.

People are willing to go against their consciences if they are being told to do so by authority figures.

So any business, any club, or any society which fosters an “I’ll tell you and you do it” approach will be susceptible to this disconnect. It’s the “I’ll tell you” from the leader that absolves people of the responsibility for their actions and allows humans to do the worst things possible. The age-old response to mass crimes has consistently been “I was just doing what I was told.”

Relying upon a benevolent leader isn’t the answer—the answer is to get everyone thinking and everyone taking responsibility for their behavior. The next time you are tempted to tell someone what to do, and enforce a degree of power over them, whether formalized or not, think twice—and ask them what they think the right thing to do is.

The problem is that it seems like a big step from telling people what to do to not telling people what to do. Turns out that this journey can be done incrementally, using what I call the “ladder of leadership.” The ladder of leadership (below) is a construct for measuring and affecting empowerment based upon the words people say.

At the bottom we have “tell me what to do” by the worker and “I’ll tell you what to do” by the boss. As we move up the ladder the worker gains in voice and authority and ownership. The language we use matters immensely when leading

The point of this is not to force the worker to move up the ladder but to move ourselves, as leaders, up the ladder. It is very difficult for workers to be higher on the ladder than the boss. Whatever level the boss is on puts a ceiling on the level of empowerment the workers could attain. While we cannot force someone to move from being a level 1 (tell me what to do) to a level 2 (I think) worker, we can consistently show up as a level 2 boss, asking our teams what they think. This is not only a more enjoyable dynamic; it taps the collected knowledge of your team rather than just the knowledge of one leader.

I learned these lessons in my days as a U.S. Navy Captain on board the nuclear submarine USS Santa Fe when I gave an order that could not be performed, but the watch officer ordered it anyway. He knew it couldn’t have been performed, but he ordered it because I “told him to.” We train people to be compliant and conform. Then we hope that they think for themselves—but this is a long shot.

When leaders make mistakes, we point to them and make scapegoats of them. Often the organization follows the leader over the cliff. The problem is not leaders making mistakes, the problem is leaders giving the orders. For example, Captain Schettino of the cruise ship Costa Concordia was vilified because he drove the ship too close to the island of Giglio, turned too late, ran aground and sank his ship with the loss of 39 lives. The focus of press attention was on the error he made. This missed the point.

The real question isn’t “What was the captain thinking?” but “Why was the captain of the cruise ship giving orders?” While this might seem like an unusual question, we know that when the top person in a hierarchy gives an order, the lower levels are likely to follow. But who has the most information about what’s happening on the ground? The lower levels. The solution isn’t a personnel change, it’s a process change.  We shouldn’t be calling for the heads of those at the top of the tree, but instead calling for the leaders to push decision-making down the hierarchy.

We shouldn’t be calling for the heads of those at the top of the tree but instead calling for the leaders to to push decision making down the hierarchy.

Level 1 of the ladder of leadership, “tell me what to do,” is often camouflaged. For example, bringing a problem without a solution is a camouflaged “tell me what to do.” When you hear “tell me what to do,” resist providing an immediate answer. Providing an answer promotes dependency and deprives your people of the ability to grow into leaders.

If people have had a long history of working for a top-down boss then they might be reluctant to immediately volunteer what they think. So here are some strategies you can try to encourage someone at “tell me what do” to tell you what they think:   

  • Make it small – Let’s look at one tiny piece of the problem. “What do we know about this client that’s important to them?”
  • Change perspective – “How do you think the customer would want this solved?” OR “What would you do if you were me?” 
  • Fast forward – “Let’s say it’s Friday at 5 p.m. We have solved this perfectly. What would we have done?” OR “It’s six months from now? What have we done to be wildly successful?”


Over the next several months, we’ll be publishing a series of articles to help you practice strategies to move yourself, and your team, up the ladder, one step at a time. Follow along with us, and while you do this, encourage your team to move with you. For now, however, pay attention to how your people interact with you on decisions and train yourself to recognize level 1 (“tell me what to do”). 

Part One: Why Motivating Others Starts with Using the Right Language
Part Two: The Counterintuitive Art of Leading by Letting Go
Part Three: How to Source Suggestions from a Reluctant Team Member

More Posts by David Marquet

David is the former commander of the nuclear powered submarine USS Santa Fe and author of Turn the Ship Around!, which Fortune Magazine called the “best how-to manual anywhere for managers on delegating, training, and driving flawless execution.”

Comments (13)
  • Char

    This is a great article, thanks! really enjoyed it.

  • Geoff Talbot

    This is awesome. The moment we tell someone what to choose, we rob from them a piece of their creativity and in some sense a piece of their divinity.

    Imagine if we did this to our partners or our children (oh wait some of us do)…

    This happens a lot online too, with a bunch of courses that are created to take away the participants choices. They are given a formula to follow. They are told how to start, what to put in the middle and how to finish.

    It is better to ask questions and trust the person, they will nearly always surprise us with a piece of insight or an idea that we would never have thought of.

    The true genius is the person that can see and unlock the brilliance in others.

    P.S: This is actually what we do in our Blog Masters Course

  • Alok Kumar

    Thats a good point view when someone teach you good thing regarding your career then you try to ignore that thing. here you mention tell me what do in this point view is good can I ADD one thing which is” Make you believe in yourself” @
    Happy Father’s day

  • sekinj

    Sure wish I could send this to my team lead!

  • Jon Whelan


  • David Moskowitz

    What do you do when you’d love a leader that empowers you, but all you get is a micromanager? What happens when the leaders do NOT want to empower their team? This is the situation in healthcare, which, like the military, is hierarchical and reeking with blame.

    • xaigo

      I’m very curious what to do too. Walking away from every company where the managers’ style of interaction clashes with yours seems like a very bad solution.

      And then there’s this catch – you choose an organization because they position themselves as effective and open-minded and ask you all sorts of questions on responsibility and taking the initiative and you embrace it fully and get all hyped-up about your future work, but the actual people you then interact with on a day-to-day basis turn out to be the complete opposite. “Why try a new approach if this one works ok?”, “Why improve X if the client didn’t ask for it?”, “Let’s not do it, it’s too tedious…” 🙂

    • David Marquet

      This is a tough question. My test is “picture your son or daughter being treated like that at work — what would you want them to do?” Remember, stress at work kills people. This article cites a study that says workplace stress kills up to 120,000 people a year.

  • Kristal Corrion

    Great article, I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. This is the basics of developing leadership qualities in your team – creating an environment where they can learn to trust themselves and know their leader has their back – then it trickles throughout the team.

  • Matt Potter

    Hi David, really great article and some thoughtful points on pushing decision-making down the ladder (its something our company has started to do and it has proven tremendously effective).

    The only thing was I wanted to point out a problem with your section on the Stanley Milgrim experiments at Yale. You wrote that “People are willing to go against their consciences if they are being told to do so by authority figures,” however if you dive deeper into the results, you’ll find the exact opposite: that people will rebel when they are given an order, and that–as in the case of the Nazi crimes–individuals do terrible things when their consciences are actually appealed to. Radolab and Alex Haslam did a great segment on it:

    • David Marquet

      Thanks Matt. I took that language from one of the research papers. I’m not sure I’m reading you right. To be clear, every one of the Nazi war criminals said “I was just following orders.” I don’t know of any that said..”I did it because my conscience told me.” It was the following of orders that allowed them to cast aside their humanity, imho.

      • Matt Potter

        Hey David, its a bit hard to explain here (they address it in a more detailed way in the segment), but I’ll give it a go. The part of the study the research paper was most likely referring to was the baseline study, and its the part of the study that everyone focuses on. However, the experiment also included variant testing to see what effect different elements would have. Milgrim had 3 prepared responses when a test subject raised concern, each response increasing in urgency (the last of which was a direct order). He found that when he used the direct order response that the subjects actually rebelled and refused to participate any longer.

        And you’re right that the Nazis defended themselves at the Nuremberg Trials by saying, “I was just following orders.” But Alex Haslam makes the case that was an excuse given rather than the real reason. He uses the example of Himmler’s Posen speech to the SS in which he told them that he understood they didn’t want to kill so many people (including women and children), but that they were doing it for the greater good of Germany. Essentially showing that their decision to commit these atrocities wasn’t out of blind obedience, but rather out of rationalization.

  • Adam Thomas

    This is an excellent article.

    That study scared me when I first read it, and it scared me even more when I realized how often the world works like that. Releasing responsibility is easy, and it strokes the leaders ego when she is right and when it all works, everyone is happy.

    But this creates a ship(using the authors naval experience) with some holes. No ship with holes lasts the test of time.

    Can’t wait to see more of these.

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