Great leaders know how to break the status quo and shift the mindset of an organization to achieve goals. Saying this, of course, is kind of like saying, “Get out there and be a great leader — good luck.”

How do you actually steer an entire organization to rally around a unified mission and position yourself for success? My advice: Do as many great leaders do, and break stuff! I mean it. Subvert the stuffy ideas of conventional leadership.

If, for you, this looks like breaking the classical techniques of leadership to live the values you preach, set clear examples, present pathways and eat last, then you and I are aligned on what I call “unleadership.” A holistic, human-centered approach to leadership is more effective than traditional, authoritarian styles — and I don’t need Harvard to tell me so.

Here are three ways you too can lead your team and organization as an “unleader.”

What is “unleadership”?

An adaptive leadership philosophy that practices knowing when to pilot and when to glide, unleadership is about treating your team with the respect they deserve. Unleaders balance guidance and autonomy, where individuals have responsibility and accountability for components of the organization.

Resources for leadersLeadership Training Programs to Level Up Your Team


Let Your Team Members Speak First

The key to success as an unleader is to find and develop the right players and then help identify obstacles in the way of success. It’s up to leaders to create a vision aligned with their personal values and goals and earn buy-in from others. Start by setting SMART goals, then define the vision, guide for growth, identify next steps and get out of the way.

  • Specific: What do I wish to accomplish?
  • Measurable: Define success metrics. What does it mean to win?
  • Achievable: What are the steps needed to succeed? Are they reasonable?
  • Relevant: This is your reality check. Can this be done? Are the resources available?
  • Time-Bound: A goal without an end-date is not achievable.

Unleaders balance guidance and autonomy, encouraging teams to contribute openly. You are responsible for fostering an environment where employees feel free to speak up and contribute ideas. You need to collect ideas from the group, convey messages clearly and know when to defer to the knowledgeable leaders on the team. When you strike the right rhythm with your team, you set a precedent for how things should be done and empower people to accomplish their goals without you around.

Afford your team the space to generate ideas and problem solve even if you feel you already know the answer. You’ll be amazed at the outcome. Be wary of controlling the dialogue by asking too many questions. Allow them to speak first — except during situations where you must speak first, such as important meetings where you need to seed a question or two and stay available to answer questions and facilitate conversation.

When we focus too heavily on controlling the outcome of a project or situation, we’re still driving the conversation. Simply set the stage and let your teammates take the lead.


Normalize Emotions and Champion Values

Humans are emotional beings and we’re not void of that in a professional setting. In fact, the professional setting can be one of the most emotional, because a career has a direct impact on a person’s well-being. We spend a lot of time at work, and work determines what we can afford, from basic necessities to time with loved ones. Emotions have their place in the workplace, and separating the two is a disservice to the people you are leading.

Like emotions, values are inherently human. They stem from culture — how we support one another, our communities and our clients. As a leader, you must practice what you preach around values and know how to communicate those values to your team. In an ideal setting, your company goals and mission are something your team can rally behind, aligning with their personal goals and ambitions.


Distribute the Weight of Leadership

Unleaders let their teams come together to navigate the path forward, make decisions and lead themselves. Your job then, as the unleader, is to regulate the situation, mitigate challenges that arise and delegate tasks.

  • Regulation: Setting clear boundaries to prevent problems from arising ahead of time.
  • Mitigation: Reducing the severity of a problem at hand. 
  • Delegation: Entrusting team members with specific responsibilities. 

Effective delegation maximizes productivity and allows your team to develop new skills. I’ll admit, delegation is one of the most difficult things a leader has to do. It’s tough giving up control and letting others determine a project’s outcome.

For example, at one point my team and I were launching a new product. I could have remained involved — I thought I had great ideas. Realizing that I was in the way was hard, but my stepping back turned out to be a great opportunity for my team to clearly define what they wanted to build. The end product was better than I could have imagined.

If you’re asking, “What about your ideas, Steve?” No, my team didn’t incorporate my ideas, and in the end, they didn’t need my ideas. You have to give individuals responsibility for components of the organization, which means sometimes you’re a spectator.

More on unconventional leadership4 Ways to Conquer Your Ego Before it Destroys Your Business


Get Out of Your Own Way

Unleadership combines leadership and mentorship. As an unleader, you make and support strategic decisions and guide personal growth. Whether you’re measuring year-over-year business growth, the impact of a marketing campaign, lowered turnover rate, reduced supply chain costs or any other key performance metric for your organization, to see success you must establish the vision and trust your team to uphold it.

People must be able to think for themselves, do things for themselves and feel the successes and failures that come with ownership. Which brings us back to the ultimate paradox of effective leadership: knowing when to step in and when to step back. In other words, knowing when to get out of your own way.

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