Piers IbbotsonA guest blog by  Piers Ibbotson, founder of Directing Creativity and contributor to My Steam Engine Is Broken.

Leading with trust and inspiration – and without a plan!

People appointed to leadership positions are in a framework of people already incumbent. This is a big problem. When a new leader is appointed there is often a flurry of activity. People will get moved, fired, replaced, their job description changed – sometimes a whole new team will be selected, but the emotional fall-out from these actions is enormous – it can undermine the effectiveness of the new group for months, even years.

My advice? – don’t bother.

Use “bricolage”- make your project from the materials you have to hand. Who is there? What can they do? What will get them going in a new direction? Any group can be rallied to action with the right handling – of course it means that to some extent you have to operate without a plan and with a high level of trust. People in leadership positions are responsible for delivery and that responsibility hangs heavy – they have to show they have a plan. So they pick a new team, they set targets and they drive people to achieve them. They reward them with bonuses when they succeed, and fire them when they don’t.

Managing by target-setting avoids the messy and unpredictable business of leading people; it allows managers to hide behind numbers and an idea that they are running a well-oiled machine with inputs and outputs. It delivers alright – but what is the cost? In the end it produces a savage, competitive work place, ruthless, driven and deeply unhappy: A place without loyalty and often without morals. Don’t do it.

If you trust and inspire people, they will perform

Getting a group pointing in the right direction and working hard; needs constant, hands on, face-to-face, work. That’s it. You won’t have time for anything else, so tell the higher ups to leave you alone while you get on with it. People will go in the direction you want them to go, if they can see the point of the destination and are noticed for the work they do – noticed – that’s enough. Financial rewards are nice but no substitute for the real thing. And being noticed means that the leader has to be there, close up, to see. Not to manage, not to interfere, but close enough to see what they are doing and give acknowledgement – and maybe some advice. People find it hard to believe that if you trust and inspire people they will perform, but there is abundant research to demonstrate that, beyond a minimum level of reward, extrinsic motivations like bonuses have little or no effect on behaviour.

People are motivated by their perception of the behaviours of those near to them, not those far away. They take their cues from their neighbours, but if they don’t know their neighbours, and if their neighbours are competing with each other to hit their targets by whatever means, regardless of the consequences, that is what they will do. If the boss is right next to them, literally, they will be influenced by them, but when the boss is not, which can be most of the time, you will have an organisation in which the fallout from competitive behaviour can destroy as much value as it adds.

Being present with your people

Take a real risk. Tell people the truth and inspire them to come up with the answers – then trust them to deliver. The solutions they find will not be yours, they may not be what you want, or what you thought would work, but they will be solutions. Your job is to watch, closely and supportively, what they are doing; encourage, help, and occasionally deflect, forgive, or forbid, actions that are clearly doomed or dangerous. Remind them of where they are heading. You cannot dictate their actions; that is being a dictator, not a leader.

Over time you will move them to a place where they are delivering something that works, that they own and they have made in collaboration with each other. Some roles may indeed need to change, some people may want to leave, but that should not be where the process starts. Over time, your followers will evolve a mutual trust and understanding that makes them resilient, creative and ambitious. Being a leader is about how you are, from moment-to-moment in relationship with others. It’s about being present with your people and trusting them as you make your way together.

The legacy of a leader lies in the qualities of the community they leave behind when their work is done. The person who leads them there really isn’t that important.


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More about Piers Ibbotson

Piers Ibbotson is one of the contributors to My Steam Engine is Broken.  After a successful career as an actor with the Royal National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he became assistant director, Piers now runs bespoke theatre-based training and development programmes for business through his company Directing Creativity, applying techniques and practices used in theatrical ensemble work.

You can read more about Piers’approach in chapter 4 of My Steam Engine is Broken, ‘The Innovation Committee’, and chapter 5, ‘Everybody’s talkin’ at me’.

A version of this blog first appeared on LinkedIn in June 2014.