Skip to content

Flexible Leadership: How to Stop Managing and Start Facilitating

3 min read

The role of the leader in this context is not to set a vision and then make others follow it, but rather to create an environment where others can flourish. In other words, to make things easier for them.

It was one of those workshops that was just firing on all cylinders. We had eight motivated senior leaders from a global financial institution. An abundance of creativity and support for each other. Deep dialogue, some “aha” moments and lots of fun. As you would expect in London, good strong tea. Excellent chocolate biscuits. And, surprisingly, even some sun!

During a break on day 1, Mike, an elegant grey-haired senior sales director from Canada, approached me – and asked a simple question.


“Eva, what is your job?” 

 “Well, uhh — I help people to—

 “I mean, what do you call yourself? Instructor? Teacher? Trainer?” 

I thought for a moment. It was a good question. And an important one. “Well, my favorite word to describe what I do is ‘facilitator.’”

Mike smiled. “Oh, that is a good word, facilitator. Did you know it comes from French “facile,” which means easy?”

Mike’s comment inspired me to check out the dictionary later that evening. According to Collins English dictionary: facilitate (fəˈsɪlɪˌteɪt ) (transitive) to make easier; assist the progress of

I also checked the metaphors in the synonyms column: “ease, grease, loosen (up), smooth, unclog, further, help, forward, promote, speed up, pave the way for, fast-track, expedite, oil the wheels of, smooth the path of.”

The opposites are equally visual, but less compelling: “complicate, hinder, impede, retard, aggravate, worsen, prevent, delay, frustrate, handicap, restrain, hamper, thwart, obstruct, encumber, hold up, hold back.”

As we continued day 2 of our workshop, Mike and the other participants shared their most pressing work concerns. They’ve seen their organization become incredibly complex over the years. Their large teams are distributed all over the world. As leaders, they are no longer the experts on the topic; rather, the expertise is distributed across the organization and with external partners. The tasks their team members face are not routine, but require creativity and flexibility. And everything is just much faster than it used to be.

In this context, these leaders feel they need to approach their teams differently. The current business environment requires a change from a traditional, hierarchical leadership towards a “shared” leadership, where leadership practices are distributed throughout the organization in a more egalitarian, collaborative, fluid way.

Several workshop participants mention Daniel Pink’s bestseller Drive, where Pink describes a change from Motivation 2.0 – based on carrots and sticks, command and control – to today’s Motivation 3.0. based on basic human needs to direct our own lives (autonomy), to learn and create new things (mastery), and to do better by ourselves and our world (purpose). The role of the leader in this context is not to set a vision and then make others follow it, but rather to create an environment where others can flourish. In other words, to make things easier for them.

In their recent book Collective Genius Linda Hill and her coauthors use a great metaphor: “Every person in your group, whether that’s a small team or a large corporation, contains a slice of genius. Your task as leader is to create a place where all those slices can be elicited, combined, and converted into collective genius.”

Then our workshop turns into a (just very slightly facilitated) discussion – Subir’s team in India is expected to consistently deliver innovative solutions. Subir found out that facilitating rather than commanding is the only leadership style that enables him to do that.

Sylke, a finance executive from Germany shares a story about a worldwide marketing project she recently led. She feels that she controlled and commanded too much, not leaving enough autonomy for the team. Team members, especially far-flung ones, were disengaged by the end of the project – maybe they felt that their “slice of genius” was not used enough. Sylke promises to herself that in her next project, she will be less of a “complicator” and more of a “facilitator.”

Hassan, based in Dubai, makes the link with the process happening in the room:

“Did you notice how engaged we all were during this workshop? Maybe because we could define our goals ourselves and self-direct our learning. And I could observe everyone’s natural desire to learn and to be better. Eva did not control that much, she “just” created the conditions and let us run, I think she really made it easier for us …  – is that what we mean by “facilitate”?” 

As we wrapped up the workshop, I asked each participant to think about how this applies to his or her team and the next project. How can they ease things? What can they grease? Loosen up? Smooth? Unclog? Can they oil the wheels for their teams?

What about you? Can you share with us your own leadership moments when you made things easier for your team? Do you have a leader in your organization who “facilitates”?



Virtual Presence Guide: How to Help Virtual Teams Create Authentic Connections

Download this guide to discover tips and best practices to help your teams be productive and engaged when working virtually.

View Resource