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Encourage initiative if you want to go far together

20th September 2022

I wonder whether paradoxically getting too involved in your own business could actuallydamage it. The proverb, “If you want to go fast, walk alone. But if you want to go far, walk together” can be applied to business: If you want to grow fast and exit, and have the energy to carry every detail in your head, do it yourself. But if you want to build a sustainably growing business, you need colleagues committed to the same vision as you. And you need to create space for them to take initiative.

My evidence is purely anecdotal, but I have seen leaders work so hard that others slack off or just focus on their own function without thinking about the company as a whole. It is contrary to efficient human nature to worry about things you know someone else is covering.

I think I saw this on a country scale on a recent visit to Kigali in Rwanda, where the equivalent proverb could be, “If you want to develop fast, be an autocrat. But if you want to develop a sustainable country, be a democrat.”

Kigali has spotlessly clean streets, paving for pedestrians, cycle tracks, and well-tended, irrigated gardens on the roadside and in the median strips. The city surprises visitors from other African countries and encourages them to believe that this sort of civic quality is possible on our continent.

So well done to the government, that tends to be quite autocratic. On the other hand, Rwanda is one of the poorest countries in the world, and infrastructure in rural areas lacks the Kigali standard. That’s hardly surprising, given its history. I came across some really
bright, energetic and competent people in responsible positions, but again unsurprisingly, it struck me that many ordinary people tend not to speak out or take initiative.

So having plucked the low-hanging fruit of development in the form of the beautiful capital city and relatively thin layer of well-educated managers, the next challenge is to empower the mass of people – and by definition that doesn’t happen by exercising power over them.

Returning to business, one should offer training, resources and opportunity, but will the people make use of them? Personal initiative has been shown to be at least as important as business knowledge in the success of small businesses. Personal initiative is not something one can force onto people; it comes from within once the barriers are removed.

All organisations need direction, energy and resources. Effective autocratic leaders provide direction, but cannot be sure that others share that commitment; they provide energy, but only as far as their direct influence extends; and they provide resources only by their
personal ability to attract support. Their effectiveness is limited by their capacity to enforce followership, and it seldom survives long after the leader leaves.

Empowering leaders provide direction by coordinating and leading a shared commitment to an agreed goal; they provide energy by example and by removing barriers to enthusiastic participation; and they provide resources by attracting talented people and then getting out of their way.

It’s often a slower process, but I think it lasts longer and brings more happiness to the
workplace.

Jonathan Cook is a Counselling Psychologist and Chairman of the African Management Institute. This is a coaching columns for Business Day, published on 20 September 2022 (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-09-19-jonathan-cook-encourage-initiative-if-you-want-to-go-far-together/)


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