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Leading from the side - why it's better to buy the pizza than roll up your sleeves

You have probably seen the meme that appears on LinkedIn periodically. It depicts the leader as some kind of hero and the 'boss' as a devilish dictator.

I've written before about the broad nonsense of this viewpoint.

Not all leaders are brilliant, not all bosses are bad, and the reality is that you are probably both.

In the meme and in pretty much every leadership development programme I facilitate, someone will suggest that there is a time for us to roll our sleeves up and get stuck in with those that we lead.

Yes, but no.

Imagine you're working on the phone in a contact centre, and the big boss decides to dive in and take calls. What a pressure!

Or you're the GM of a busy hotel or cinema, and suddenly, your boss is selling popcorn or checking people in. It is almost definitely chaos.

Or you and your team are amid an overnight stocktake, and boom, the Retail Director lands to 'help', making the process longer, more pressurised and more complex.

The likelihood is that they don't want your misguided help. What they really want is to feel like you care.

Imagine that you're in the midst of that stock take, and the RD lands unexpectedly to take the pizza order. They order the food, pay for it, and tidy up when it's eaten. They check if there is anything else you want or need and then leave!

I am not saying that leaders should never get their hands dirty. But rolling your sleeves up is only a good idea when three criteria are met:

  • when you can really help

  • when you're genuinely ready to let them tell you what to do

  • when there is no chance of them becoming reliant on you swooping in

If you dive in to help without these three criteria being met, it is either a misguided way of showing you care and you need to find a better way, or it is driven by ego and to show you're important.

In either case, keep those sleeves rolled down, take a step to the side and buy the pizza.

Our legendary leadership development programmes have helped leaders in the likes of Merlin Entertainments, Netflix and Warner Bros. To partner with us to create a programme for your leaders, email


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