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The Art of Non-Doing Leadership
by Eric Garner

The skills of facilitation are not "doing" skills in the sense that car maintenance skills do things to improve the performance of cars, but "non-doing" skills in the sense that it is our supportive presence, our absence of interference and our gentle guidance that do things to improve the performance of people.

1. Waiting.

One of the skills of the non-doing approach to group leadership is waiting.

Waiting signifies a quiet calm confidence that something valuable will emerge. Waiting allows you to observe what is going on in the group. Waiting allows you to tune in to where the group is and follow their lead. When you wait for others, they eventually take the lead.

"It took the class four sessions to realise that, if they wanted something to happen to them, it was they who had to provide the content. After the fourth session, the group became close to one another and their true selves appeared. There were moments of insight that were awesome in nature. We all felt elevated, freer, more accepting of ourselves and others." (Dr. Samuel Tannenbaum on Carl Rogers' method of facilitation)

2. Letting Go.

Letting people learn at their own pace and in their own way is the ultimate act of empowerment.

People don't grow because we tell them they have to or because we threaten them if they don't; they only grow if we provide the right conditions in which growth can take place.

"A Zen master once asked an audience of Westerners what they thought was the most important word in the English language. After giving his listeners the chance to think about such favourite words as love, truth, failure, success and so on, he said: "No, it's a three-letter word. It's the word, "let". Let it be. Let it happen."" (W.Timothy Gallwey)

3. Absence.

Amongst the options open to the facilitator in promoting groupwork is his or her choice to leave the group alone. The facilitator can do this by simply agreeing on what the group are to do, announce where he or she is going and then leaving them to get on with their task.

Not being present has a number of benefits. It removes any feeling that the facilitator is watching the group and judging them. It allows the group the freedom to be themselves. It shows the facilitator's trust in them. It focuses all the group's attention on each other.

Frequent absences are likely to reduce the impact of this technique. By contrast, there will be occasions when the facilitator will choose to take an active part in groupwork as one of the participants. By making these choices, he or she models personal freedom to the group.

4. Attentiveness.

When you practise non-doing in a group leadership role, it does not mean that you are doing nothing. It means you are still, quiet and attentive to what is going on.

Being attentive means being aware of what is happening in the group without judging it and without wanting to give it meaning. You can observe physical interaction, who is included, who is left out; you can observe the nature and quality of interactions, whether slow or quick, high-spirited or dull; you can observe what is happening in order to detect whether the group needs your help to change its direction.

Attentiveness allows you to do what nobody else in the group can do and that is to see the group as a group. As such, you can make a key contribution to the group's awareness of itself.

5. Silence.

In traditional forms of groupwork, such as talking shop and control groups, silence signifies a lack of knowledge, an inability to act, a loss for words, an admission that you don't know what to do next. Consequently, silences are rare.

In facilitative groups, silences are aids to understanding. They can be a way to comment without words; a way to search for deeper meaning; a chance to rest; a natural gap because you really have nothing to say; a pause for reflection; or simply a respite from active work. They may be a way for the facilitator to indicate to the group that he or she has no superior knowledge and that it is for them to make the next move. Silence can mean whatever we want it to mean.

"The one who speaks does not know; the one who knows does not speak." (Lao Tzu)

6. Subtle Support.

Subtle support is a valuable facilitative technique which allows you to give support to others in a group without making them dependent on you.

  • you can give subtle support to people who are shy in groups and find it hard to speak up by sitting opposite them and giving non-verbal cues of encouragement
  • you can give subtle support to those who want to be leaders within the group by sitting close to them
  • you can give subtle support to those who deserve compliments by praising what they do rather than praising them. Praising what people do sounds more sincere and avoids embarrassing people.

Whenever you are tempted to display your support ("Look at me, I'm showing you support!"), rein it back in so that it is almost imperceptible.

Exchanging the traditional "doing" role for the facilitative "non-doing" role may not come easy for some team leaders. Such people may see themselves as responsible for getting the group to perform in traditional ways. They may believe in the laws of physics as applied to people - they push, they force, they apply pressure, they struggle, they threaten. It is hard for them to understand that they would be more successful by standing back, letting go, going with the flow and letting things happen.


The Author

Eric Garner

Eric Garner is Managing Director of ManageTrainLearn, the site that will change the way you learn forever. Download free samples of the biggest range of management and personal development materials anywhere and experience learning like you always dreamed it could be.

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Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2008 by Eric Garner. All rights reserved.

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