The Zucchini Lesson: Lead By Not Doing

My 12 year old son was helping me with dinner. I laid out the cutting board and two zucchini, and asked him to slice them up – something he had never been asked to do himself.

He started with the washing. Was there something to wash them with? No, I said, just wash them with water this time because we’re all out of veggie wash. He did.

Next was the knife selection. Was there a certain knife he should use? I replied simply that he should choose one of his own liking, any out of the knife block. After examining a few, he opted for a rather thin carving knife.

As he held a wet zucchini in one hand and the knife in the other, he asked me how thickly he should slice them. He showed me with the knife, and I said that would be fine, whatever he was comfortable with.

He then proceeded to carefully slice up the zucchini for the next few minutes – a task that normally takes me a fraction of that time.

After he was finished, I took out a squash, washed it, sliced it down the middle, and put the two halves next to each other. I then grabbed a chopping knife and sliced them both up at the same time, taking only a few seconds.

My son watched in amazement. “So that’s how you do it so quickly!” he exclaimed. Then, “I never would have thought of that.”

“Not true,” I told him. “You would have eventually, maybe after you tried a couple of different ways. I just asked you to do it – it was up to you to decide how you did it. You’ve never done it before so it’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to figure out the best way on your first try.”

He thought about that and then said, “I’m glad you didn’t tell me exactly how to do it.”

“Why?” I smiled, knowing this was the whole point of the exercise. It’s pretty rewarding as a parent when one of your lessons actually pans out.

“I probably wouldn’t have thought that way was faster. It wouldn’t have seemed like it to me if I hadn’t tried it my own way first.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “This way, I’ll remember better, too.”

As seasoned leaders, we often already know great ways for someone on our team, or our whole team, to get a job done. We’ve already done it or seen it done many times. The best leaders don’t always “lead by doing” though – knowing when to step back is just as important. Leading by not doing can create an opportunity for others to learn by trying. Let the team make choices that may not be the most efficient. The conclusions they arrive at eventually, after trying, will be far more meaningful because they will be theirs, not yours.

Once someone has been allowed to try out their own ideas, openness to other ideas typically increases. The barrier of your idea/my idea has been removed. Respect and trust has been shown by letting the team have the freedom to try – and it will result in a team that forms its own best practices that it truly believes in.

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