Manager to Leader; Leader to Enabler

There are a lot of opinions on the nature of the best sorts of business managers and what their attributes are, but there is one hypermodern school of thought worth paying particular attention to in the form of enabler leadership. The idea of enablers instead of traditional managers or leaders seems a natural progression from the once revolutionary ideas of Robert K Greenleaf in his servant leadership, whereby the management theorist suggests that the ultimate attribute in a leader is having a ‘Natural feeling to…serve first’[1]. Enablers seem more extreme on this spectrum though – if they can be seen to be on it at all: rather than only leading after serving, they never have to lead, in the traditional sense, at all.

To understand what is meant by such paradoxical non leading leadership, it might be best to break down the fundamentals of what management and leadership are. The Oxford English Dictionary gives management as ‘The process of dealing with or controlling things or people’[2] and to lead as ‘’Be[ing] in charge or command of [by] organising and directing’[3]. Already we can see that management implies some level of autocracy, of one chess player demanding his pieces move to his will, through the idea of ‘Control’[4], whereas leadership implies more of a democracy whereby those higher up provide motivation to accomplish tasks ‘Not by ordering [people], not by saying do this, but by guiding and asking questions’[5] (Ancona and Isaacs, 2019). What I am suggesting, however, is neither of these two approaches: I think the future of business management lies more in a laissez faire system whereby managers don’t resort to ‘Directing’[6] at all, but, instead, take direction on where a company should go and the projects in which the company should invest from the bottom up.

What would the advantages of managers as enablers be? In the first place, allowing leaders to act in this respect would repurpose them from simply ‘Counting value’[7](Nayar, 2013) to enabling them to create their own. Rather than having to harangue their teams with requests for unnecessary weekly meetings, briefings, project updates and all other time wasting endeavours, managers would no longer slow teams and would instead be able to focus on their own input for task completion; therefore, this would not only increase the value of the team as a whole by eradicating the team’s hand brake, managers would be an extra fuel injection in driving the company forward. That’s not to say enablers are transcendent in their leadership role, however, as they are still available to coach skills and help with projects upon request; the idea is that team members are left to their own devices till they otherwise ask so that they can actually meet their potential without unnecessary reporting slowing them down.

Enablers would also allow for a system whereby employees could work on whichever projects they felt they could best apply themselves on, allowing freedom to change to different teams or projects on an ad hoc basis. Under this system, one could eliminate creative staleness and optimise employee performance through non segregation of talent compared to traditional team structures. This idea may sound like lunacy to some: what if I have two projects, one all bells and whistles and the other not so much, and nobody wants to work on the second project? The issue here isn’t with the system. Ask yourself why no one would want to develop a seemingly less exciting project in the first place. After all, everybody’s interests are different so surely somebody would find the challenge worth tackling? If not, perhaps that’s because the teams can see something you can not. Perhaps it appears to them to be a vanity project that adds no value to the company. Perhaps you’re convinced otherwise. If that’s the case, maybe the issue isn’t the system, but more the fact individuals don’t share your vision for success or share in the company’s values or culture. If that’s the case, assuming that it’s not an instance of hiring the wrong individuals to suit your business’s ethos, it is more likely to be down to a failure to effectively nurture company culture on the part of the senior management team; thus this would require exploring new ways to get teams to emotionally invest in their working environment.

Another argument for enablers as managers is that this system creates greater employee engagement. Many organisations believe they already have a culture which accentuates how involved their staff feel in their company through offering extra responsibility and autonomy, but, often, they are quite mistaken about actual levels of engagement. The following case study exemplifies this:

I recently conducted a culture diagnostic at a large asset manager, an organization known for its ability to innovate and pull in bright talent to maintain its position. When C-level executives learned that many employees did not feel empowered, they expressed surprise. From their perspective, the leadership team had taken deliberate and consistent actions to empower people, giving them opportunities to take on new challenges and grow their skill sets[8] (Tiambo, 2019).

The reason for such a lack of engagement in the face of extra responsibility and challenges is usually down to the gesture as a whole: often superficial, providing false autonomy without any real heart to ‘Let go of authority’[9] (Tiambo, 2019). This is why the idea of non leading leadership is so powerful: once you replace the sort of managers who are unwilling to relinquish their tedious notions of power in favour of teams first enablers, teams move from feeling like insignificant cogs in the machine to actual people with meaningful input who can make real change. The upside to this is that more engagement leads to greater productivity and greater productivity correlates to greater overall results and a workforce with better wellbeing.

It’s important to look at the other side when considering such momentous shifts in thinking, however, so one has to ask whether there are any negative outcomes that could arise from this proposed style of leadership. One can predict two main areas of issue were these ideas taken forward: a lack of trust from teams in managers who would think themselves enablers, but would fail to be so; or a lack of understanding on what it means to be an enabler on the part of managers and thus none of the desired effects would be achieved as the prescribed course of action would not be followed.

What does all that mean? It is not only possible, but likely, that these ideas of more nimble leadership, of enablers, will be misunderstood: for example, some may read non leading leadership as less leading leadership or will interpret giving up full de facto power to teams to mean occasionally handing over the reins or being more liberal in workplace rules, but ultimately carrying on in the same stale manner as before. The problem is that the idea is radical and flies in the face of the sort of business truths that have predominated against all previous comers – whether that’s Greenleaf’s servant leadership, being a leader rather than manager, et cetera. We, as humans, seem to have a natural instinct to recognise good leaders for their inspirational qualities and then, for whatever psychological reason, revert from attempting to assimilate such attributes to becoming the same despotic managers that we hated and never wanted to become in the first place. Therein lies the true issue with what I’m suggesting: you can not teach constant conscious effort to overcome managerial biases which are as arbitrary as they are erroneous.

That’s not to say that it could never work, however, and it’s not to say that the conversation sparked from this thought experiment won’t find an even better way to lead in the future. What I hope from sharing is that at least there will be discussion, at least there will introspection and at least there will be action on overhauling stale, outdated, unproductive leadership in the hope of finding a better system where the idea is to enable potential and ‘Make it possible’[10].


  1. [1]Robert K Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, (New York: Academy Press, 1979), 2. [2] No author, ‘Management’, Oxford English Dictionary,, (Oxford: Oxford University Publishing, 2019). [3] No author, ‘Lead’, Oxford English Dictionary,, (Oxford: Oxford University Publishing, 2019). [4] No author, ‘Management’, Oxford English Dictionary,, (Oxford: Oxford University Publishing, 2019). [5] Deborah Ancona and Kate Isaacs, Interview by Curt Nickisch, The 3 Types of Leaders of Innovative Companies,, (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing 2019). [6] No author, ‘Lead’, Oxford English Dictionary,, (Oxford: Oxford University Publishing, 2019). [7] Vineet Nayar, Three Differences Between Managers and Leaders,, (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing 2013). [8] Murielle Tiambo, Leaders Can Cultivate True Employee Empowerment,, (New York: Forbes Media, 2019). [9] Ibid. [10] No author, ‘Enable’, Oxford English Dictionary,, (Oxford: Oxford University Publishing, 2019).

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