A couple of days ago I was in the grocery store. I wasn't sure what I wanted, so basically I was just wandering around looking at everything. At one point, while going over to the freezer that held the shrimp, I noticed something just off the side of the cheese table that caught my eye.


I stared at it, wondering if it was cheese or some other thing. It was a very dark brown, very solid, and even trying to read the sticker on it was problematic because it had worn out. What was strange is that the description all of the packages there had worn off.

This woman came by with two children, and noticed I was having difficulties reading. She probably thought it was because I had my glasses on top of my head (that's how some of us read things as we get older) so she offered to help. She read off the stuff I could see. I told her my problem was trying to figure out what it was because none of them had listed what they were.

She then said "I'd put it down and just walk away."

I did. 🙂

In my own way I'd gotten caught up in the moment. This was a mystery that I was trying to solve, to the exclusion of anything else I had to do. This lady stepped in, did her thing, and was not only able to walk away but to get me to do what was necessary so I could walk away.

It was a brilliant piece of leadership. She wasn't mean or critical. She observed, thought about it, and gave me a solution. I was smart enough to take it.

Back in 2008 I wrote an article titled Sometimes Leaders Have To Take A Step Back, where I talked about the fine line Barack Obama had taken just days after being elected as the next president of the United States. He'd been asked some pointed questions about how he'd change things the current president was doing.

At that point he knew it wasn't the proper thing to do and so he deferred. He understood that politics is politics but leadership is leadership and President Bush was going through a tough time. It wouldn't have benefited anyone had he said something that could have shown him up.

Back in the day when I was the director of a department, I reported to the chief financial officer, or whatever the title happened to be wherever I was. It meant that person oversaw what I did; I could live with that.

What often happened is that person had to listen to me telling them what was going on and having my making almost all the decisions for what we were going to do. That happened because the person in charge didn't know the job or any of the jobs that people who reported to me did, so they knew they had to step back and let me do what I had to do.

I would often take things to them because I didn't want to overstep my authority just to see what their opinion might be. Instead, most of the time they asked me what I thought should be done. I'd offer it, then wait for them to decide. Most of the time it was in my favor, but not always. That's because sometimes my solution was going to cost money or time, and since that's the area they were over they'd have to make a tough decision based on that.

I've been on the other side as well. As corporate compliance officer, I had a lot of authority to get things done as it pertained to audits of departments. Yet there were times where I had to step back and let someone with more knowledge about something take the floor and help guide us through the process. In those moments it's not about being right as much as getting the right thing done.

Real leaders realize they don't know it all. Either they have to train others to be leaders of themselves or work with others who have skills and knowledge they don't have. They need to let these people do their work without being obstructed while still supervising it all.

Are you a confident leader who understands this principle?