Don’t Tell People How to Do Things

Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.


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I was fortunate to grow up with many business role models—my father, his business partners, members of our church and our neighbors—who instilled in me an understanding of what it took to be successful in business. To me it seemed they were all similar to one another. They dressed well and were well groomed, they were highly disciplined, well organized and loyal to their employers, employees and customers. They were solid and effective communicators both in the words they spoke and in those they penned. They were punctual, willing to work long hours when necessary and even seemed to enjoy doing so. They were committed to authority and, above all, impeccably honest.

I was 25 when a sudden management change in the business where I worked presented me with an opportunity to serve as the vice president of the organization, a position I probably didn’t deserve and was ill-prepared to fill. But to me the recipe was easy. After all, I had watched my role models work in and lead businesses and I knew what traits had made them successful.

Thus, I reasoned, I would expect of my team members those same traits I saw exuded by my role models. I explained in terms a little less than tactful that a new management team was now in charge, and things were going to change. Take for instance our team of sales people. Gone were the days of coming to work in jeans and sweaters. We were a professional team that would look the part, complete with button-down shirts and ties. Punctuality would be the norm. The office opened at 8:30 a.m.; walking in at 8:40 a.m. was now unacceptable and bolting out the door at 5:00 p.m. was frowned upon.  

If we were to win in the marketplace, long workdays were required and spending Saturdays at the office shouldn’t be out of the question either. Sloppy expense reports, call reports and work orders were an insult to those who had to process them; we expected perfection.

Most importantly, I expected their loyalty and honesty.  After all, I was the boss.

How brilliant I was. Knowing what made successful people successful, and with new rules that my team behave accordingly firmly in place, we couldn’t help but grow the business at warp speed. Right?


To my dismay, some of our team members started openly protesting these new expectations and challenging my authority. Rather than the team of people I imagined seated attentively at their desks each morning at 8:30 making their prescribed phone calls and smiling as they prepared perfect expense reports, our team members could often be found in the smoking lounge complaining about our new culture. (I came up with the perfect fix for that problem, though. I eliminated the smoking lounge.)

But things eventually got better. Or so I thought. In time, the malcontents who refused to conform either quit on their own or were terminated, replaced with people in suits and ties who signed up for my rules and expectations. Inside of a year I had my army of perfect sales people. Excellent! But could they sell?


At least not as well as the ones that quit or had been fired. Again to my dismay, our performance began to suffer.

Eventually, two lessons began to sink in. First, it’s almost impossible to force upon someone personality traits they do not naturally hold. If punctuality, hard work, organization and personal grooming habits aren’t already possessed by an adult, no amount of rules are going to change that. Secondly, and most importantly, people flourish in an environment where they can be themselves.

I was reminded of this second lesson over the holidays while reading Shoe Dog, the memoir by Nike founder Phil Knight, in which he reflects on the words of General George S. Patton who said, “Don’t tell people how to do things; tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”

I can tell team members exactly how to dress, what time to come to the office, how many hours they must work and exactly what to do while there. If I do so, I will build a team of automatons unable to think for themselves, creatively solve any problems or figure out how to help us grow.

Alternatively, if I seek team members with an appropriate level of experience and skill and the ability to think on their own, the results will be much different. When I have 10 people on my leadership team attacking an opportunity their own way, rather than 10 sycophants attacking it my way, the approaches are not only more imaginative, but since the team members own the approach, the execution will be more effective as well.

I learned the hard way that setting specific goals for the team and then coaching them toward results is by far the most effective way to lead and it leaves me open to work on the business rather than in it. For years now, I no longer fill my days worrying about what time someone shows up for work, whether their tie matches their shirt or if they crossed every “T” on their expense report. 

As a result of letting my team function independently and creatively, I am now able to do so as well.

Expect the best of your team members, and give them the room to prove themselves worthy of your trust.  



Originally published in the February 2017 issue. 





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