Are you a leader? Or are you merely a puppet on a string? 

Puppet on a string

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I first met this group of 11 new leaders back in mid-February. They are all participating in a bespoke program I have created where we come together for two days every three months over the course of their first year in an official leadership capacity. 

During our first workshop they were, for the most part, unconsciously incompetent (meaning that they didn’t really know what they didn’t know) which made complete sense given that some of them had literally only been in their new role for a few days. But at our early June session the group’s unbridled enthusiasm had waned slightly and their conscious incompetence had (not unexpectedly) taken over. Workshop two was a lot more intense as I gradually turned up the heat on the cohort. 

We are due to meet again next week for their third workshop (they weren’t all available in September) and then the program will wrap up at the end of January. 

I decided to send out a questionnaire ahead of next week’s workshop to get a bit of a pulse check as to how everyone is feeling. The survey comprised of three simple questions: 

  1. What are you enjoying most about your leadership role? 
  1. What has been your biggest accomplishment since our June workshop? 
  1. What is your biggest frustration right now? 

It was the majority of responses to the third question which prompted me to write this particular article. There was certainly a very common theme around having no autonomy; no freedom to really lead; the feeling of just being a messenger; or finding things out at the same time as the rest of their team. One of the group wrote, “I feel like I’m just a policeman”; another wrote, “I’m actually not sure if I’m really even a leader, more like a doormat to be honest”; and one of the responses simply said, “I feel like I’m just a puppet”. 

Ah … the joys and reality of being a new leader – something I’ll definitely be addressing when I meet with them all again next week. 

Unfortunately, it’s not only new leaders who share some of these frustrations. I regularly work with middle managers who also often feel like they are simply passing on instructions from above; just doing what they’re told; ‘keeping watch’, or ‘keeping the peace’ (more ‘policeman’ analogies); or doing other people’s dirty work. 

Do you ever feel like a puppet? Are you feeling stifled, controlled, or walked all over? Who’s pulling your strings?  

Are you just ‘on patrol’, ‘walking the streets’ and keeping everyone in check? Or are you truly making a difference as a leader? Are you given the autonomy to coach and develop your team members, to make your own observations, and to implement your own initiatives? 

Unfortunately, many leaders (particularly new and middle managers) find themselves in a situation where they question whether they are true leaders or simply puppets following someone else’s script. Having said that, it’s not uncommon for senior leaders to unintentionally contribute to this dynamic by micromanaging or failing to empower their middle managers. 

As a new or mid-level leader, how can you break free from the puppeteer’s strings?  

Are you tasked with executing strategies and managing a team but feel like you lack the autonomy to make significant decisions and lead in a meaningful way?  

Perhaps you feel as if you are merely implementing someone else’s plan and not being given any room for independent creativity. Maybe you feel as if you are being manipulated or being intentionally kept out of the loop. You might even feel like you are constantly being monitored and controlled, rather than trusted to make your own decisions for your team. Or you find yourself burdened with so many administrative tasks and reporting responsibilities, leaving you with no time and energy for strategic leadership and innovation and constrained in your ability to lead in a transformative way. 

You are definitely not alone. 

However, as a middle manager, you owe it to yourself to communicate openly to your senior leaders about your desire for more autonomy, to show that you are willing to take on additional responsibility, and to make a case for how it will benefit the organisation. Above all, advocate for your ability to make decisions and to gain a better understanding of the organisation’s broader goals and strategies. 

If the culture is stifling your leadership potential, highlight the benefits of a more collaborative and empowering culture that values leadership at all levels

If you are a senior leader, you also have an important role to play in ensuring that your middle managers feel more empowered and valued. 

Empowering your middle managers is essential for breaking free from the puppeteer’s strings and fostering a more dynamic leadership environment. Trust your middle managers to make informed decisions. Delegate responsibilities and provide them with the autonomy they need to lead effectively. Monitor their progress but don’t stifle their creativity. 

As a senior leader, you play a pivotal role in fostering a culture of leadership throughout the organisation. It’s up to you to communicate organisational strategies, and to trust your middle managers with the information they need to lead effectively. Hold them accountable for results but provide them with the freedom to execute strategies in their own way. Above all, act as a coach, providing your middle managers with guidance and feedback, and encourage their growth as leaders within the organisation. 

Leadership is not about being a puppet on a string or a mere policeman enforcing rules. It’s about empowerment, influence, and the ability to inspire others to achieve common goals. 

New and middle managers who aspire to be true leaders and senior leaders who aim to create a leadership culture must work together to break free from the constraints that limit potential. By fostering more open communication, trust, and empowerment, organisations can create a dynamic leadership environment where middle managers can thrive, lead effectively, and make a meaningful impact on the organisation’s success. 

It’s time to cut the strings and embrace true leadership. 

Remember,  hellomonday can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, helping middle managers feel more engaged and valued within the organisation. 

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