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Hands-Off Management

I am often asked about the difference between leadership and management. What is it that makes a leader? What is the difference between a manager and a leader … and is it possible to be transformed from one to the other?

Now, there are many more experienced writers who can weigh into this debate, but I would like to explore what I call “hands-off management” … because for me, leadership is about creating an environment where the whole organization or business unit is engaged, working in synchronicity and moving cohesively towards a clearly articulated goal.

El arte en tus manos!In this situation, no-one needs to “hold” the wheel or keep control because the business systems are aligned with your strategy, the processes you need to drive forward are active and working, and your teams are propelling your business forward in line with a shared purpose and direction. Furthermore, with an active and engaged workforce, you are able to complete a feedback loop where your teams who work directly with customers, suppliers, partners and so on, openly bring their insight, ideas and innovations back to the business and feed it through in a form of continuous strategic development.

Obviously, making this work in reality is easier said than done. However, there are some very clear steps that can be taken to begin to deliver the benefits of hands-off management:

Focus on one thing: All leaders must be able to communicate effectively. This is often known as KISS (keep it simple, stupid), but chief executives such as Procter & Gamble’s A.G. Lafley use alternatives such as Sesame Street simple slogans to get their messages across to diverse, global teams.

Lead to outcomes: By helping to focus your teams on the deliverables and outcomes expected, the impediments that come with corporate life can be more easily overcome (or disregarded). This means actively placing responsibility into the hands of your team members.

Engage your village: When it comes to achieving outcomes, you don’t want a team of employees. You want a village. To achieve long term business success, you need relationships with people right across your business. This is not leadership from the corner office. It means having a genuine relationship and a mutual, vested interest and responsibility towards your team members.

I will return to the topic of hands-off management as I see there are significant benefits for organizations of all sizes. But in the meantime, what does “hands-off management” mean to you? How have you seen it working in your organization?

Nina Nets It Out: No matter whether you consider yourself a “leader” or a “manager”, there are significant benefits to hands-off management. I will be exploring these in the coming weeks.


  1. What a provocative post, Nina! As I read it, though, I think it has less to do with the leadership/management debate and more to do with how we could organize for work more effectively. Today, I think organization of large organizations spans a continuum.

    At the most rigidly organized there are companies like the US auto companies. There are clear hierarchies and silos. Jobs are closely defined. Individuals below the top of the company have very little control over their work life.

    The aircraft companies are strictly organized, but with pockets of self management. Ditto for GE.

    Toyota, the only big company I’m familiar with that does this, has a strict hierarchy but gives lots of control to individual workers. In fact some people think the letters TPS (Toyota Production System) should stand for The People System.

    Then there are the two companies that fascinate me most in this area, WL Gore and Semco. Both essentially are self-organized units. Gore has a bit more formal organization with its plants sited in clusters. Semco is more tribally organized.

    Gore is interesting because one founder, Bill Gore, died over twenty years ago. His wife, Vieve, died three years ago and was active at some level in the company until just before her death. Their son is the current CEO which means that WL Gore and its unique approach to how a company ought to be organized has officially outlasted the founders.

    Ricardo Semler is still alive and well, though less and less a force in the day-to-day operations of Semco. Time will tell if his company idea will outlast him.

    I think we’re heading for workplaces more like Gore and Semco and less like GM, but I’m not sure how we’re going to get there. It almost seems to call for a whole set of new companies with new organization.

  2. Wally,
    Wow, what a reply! Thanks for taking the time to share your insights about these companies and the organization of work. I think your references to WL Gore and Semco are very interesting. I don’t have any great personal insight to these companies, but I know that one of the things that I employ within my own leadership style is to set an agenda, work with my ‘village’ to create a shared vision, and let people rise to their best capabilities to achieve our common goal. In fairness, it doesn’t always work out perfectly, but nothing in life does. What it does do, however, is demonstrate my faith and confidence in those around me – just as they do for me by empowering me to lead.

    I think one thing any leader ought to aspire to is to create a lasting success, not merely one that is achieved during their tenure. Any individual within an organization must understand that they are not irreplaceable. As I have stated in prior entries, a leader’s ultimate responsibility is to the best interests of the business not to any individual or group within the organization. I guess it is similar to the adage “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” That comes through loud and clear in your description of WL Gore and perhaps, in time, with Semco as well.

    I think moving toward more companies that operate this way is a good move. But, as you note, moving toward more workplaces like this within more traditional corporate structures would be a positive move as well.

    Thanks as always for pushing the thinking, Wally!

  3. Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs. I believe you now hold the record for most consecutive appearances on my “Best of the Week” list. Brava!

  4. Wally,
    What can I say beyond the “one million thank yous” for your support and encouragement? That is a record I am thrilled to hold and one which I will do my best to continue!! As always, thanks as well for your insights, guidance and thought provoking blogs.


  1. The debate about leadership and management | Managing Leadership - [...] of recent posts on the general topic of this debate, please see Nina Simosko’s essay called Hands-off Management – …