In the many years, I have watched my son work with horses, I have often heard him advise young riders to “loosen up on the reins,” to “give the horse his head.” For some young riders, there is the sense that the best way to maintain control of the horse is to hold the reins tight. While that may be appropriate in some situations, most of the time you will get a better result if you allow a bit of slack in the line — still hanging on, still guiding progress, but also allowing enough freedom for the horse to perform at its peak.
Too often, leaders seem to approach their task like that young rider. Keep the lines tight. No looking around, no veering off the straight line of some pre-determined course. Unfortunately, in the same way, a horse will toss its head and fight against reins that are held too tightly, a team or organization will push back against being unnecessarily constrained and thus unable to move forward most effectively.
The authors of Collective Genius put it this way: “The lesson for those hoping to lead innovation is clear. If you want to produce something truly new and useful, you cannot know — by definition — exactly where to go. That’s why leading innovation is not — cannot be — about being visionary.” Now I recognize that for some leaders, not knowing exactly where to go feels a bit like allowing slack in the reins while sitting on top of a 1,000-pound animal — scary, and not very safe. And it is your job to be visionary . . . right?!?
It is a leader’s job to achieve maximum long-term impact. Yes, that means providing direction and keeping our hands on the reins, but heaven help us if we as leaders are expected to have all the good ideas! If we hold the lines too tightly, we don’t allow the unique wisdom of individuals on our team to benefit the organization. Just as a horse will adjust course to avoid a hazard the person holding the reins might not see, we need our teams to have the latitude to bring their instincts, insight, and best thinking to the task at hand.
A leader should provide a clear destination and basic ground rules, and yet keep a light grip on the specific path forward. Yes, there will occasionally be missteps and things will need to be pulled back in a bit. That task is much easier if you haven’t made a habit of tugging on your people unnecessarily. Counter-intuitive as it may be, sometimes the best way to accomplish your goals is to take a deep breath and loosen the reins.