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Are Leaders Really in the Driver’s Seat?

When leaders make decisions, we pay attention. Their decisions have very public impacts, both strategically and culturally. We hear a lot about executive decision-making, which is why it’s logical to assume that leadership teams are in the driver’s seat of organizations.

But is that really true?

Having worked with organizations large and small, across the US and beyond, we’ve noticed something interesting. 80% of significant decision-making (or more) is happening on the front lines...not in executive boardrooms. Regardless of what leaders say and do, whether an organization makes progress depends almost exclusively on the daily decisions of the team.

  • What do they work on?
  • What do they prioritize?
  • How do they talk about their work, to each other, and to customers?
  • Do they choose to follow the rules, or work around them?
  • Do they follow established practices, or innovate new ones?
  • And on and on.

The sooner that leaders recognize the limits of their control, the better. Only then can leaders shift their minds and energy to what really works to move an organization forward.

Mindset Shifts to Drive Real Progress

  1. Before you sell ideas to your customers, sell them to your team. I know a lot of leaders who don’t see the need to explain or justify a strategy to their teams. But this becomes a real problem when you start asking team members to do the hard things necessary to achieve success. Great leaders don’t just generate strategy. They influence, persuade, educate, and excite people to implement it.
  2. Give others the tools to make decisions when you're not in the room. You can’t be everywhere at once, and even if you could, you wouldn’t benefit from the diversity of ideas and perspectives that make organizations strong. Instead of weighing in on every key decision, teach others the principles and considerations you use to make decisions. We call this Leader’s Guidance, and it’s a great idea to write those principles down. Over time, this Guidance can help improve the quality and alignment of decision-making...even when you’re not around.
  3. When you don't understand, or you disagree with a stated obstacle, listen harder. “Just do it” works for Nike, but it’s not a great leadership tactic. I’ve heard well-meaning, otherwise talented leaders refer to obstacles and impediments as “whining,” “resistance to change,” and “naysayers” more times than I can count. Sometimes, they’re right. But more often, these leaders are abdicating their responsibility to make change easier, not harder, for their teams.

Bottom line? Leaders may have control of the wheel, but the organization is the guts of the car. Without them, you aren’t going to get far.


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About the Author: Sara Gallagher

Sara Gallagher
Sara Gallagher is the President of The Persimmon Group, responsible for strategy and operations across all practice areas. As a practicing consultant and global speaker for The Persimmon Group since 2012, Sara has helped organizations across many industries to thoughtfully select, plan, and execute high-stakes projects and business transformations. Her approach to solving business problems is interdisciplinary, focused on “leading with both sides of the brain” on the premise that even very technical efforts require innovation, strategic thinking, and emotional intelligence to execute effectively.

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