Today I spent some time talking with a successful young executive who is at a wonderful inflection point in his career. He is at the point where he recognizes that the basis for his success to date is not necessarily going to fulfill his aspirations going forward. He probably could keep doing what he has been doing and continue to pull down a good six figure income for years to come, but he is looking for more. He wants to see what his organization can accomplish if he discovers what he does not yet know about leading. What a remarkable desire!

This got me thinking about the difference between leading as giving direction, leading as creating space and leading as developing people. There are times when a leader provides direction: by establishing goals, requiring standards be met or processes followed. This is the more managerial aspect of leading. Then there is creating space: this is more about establishing the conditions in which people work, not just physically, but philosophically. The values, purpose and mission of an organization are part of creating space.

Yet another aspect of creating space is letting the organization operate without your intervening. A leader who continually inserts himself when things are not happening the way he would do them misses the chance to see how people will adjust to mistakes. It’s hard sometimes for a hands-on leader who came up through the ranks to let people discover their own problem solving capabilities in the face of challenge or failure. Yet this is how people develop, isn’t it? Of course a leader cannot let things go off the rails, but sometimes it’s useful to let them get up on two wheels once in a while.

Which leads to a third aspect of leading: developing people. People develop when they are stretched, not too far, but enough to feel the discomfort of it all. Connected with the idea of creating space is the idea of providing people with the opportunity to stretch. For a hands on leader, thissometimesmeans sitting on your hands and watching as people adjust and grow to meet the challenges you’ve allowed them to face. Challenges themselves are sometimes developmental, and combined with an opportunity to reflect with a mentoring senior leader, challenges can provide career defining lessons.

I’m interested to hear what you think about these ideas.