The River Maker: Unleashing Your Team’s Potential


Leaders stretch across a spectrum when it comes to the spectrum of control.

Some leaders need to be in control. They want to know what’s going on, how it’s happening, and what the outcome is. These types of leaders like to delve into details, be involved in discussions, and make decisions. These people fall into the High Control end of the spectrum.

On the other side lie the Low Control people. These leaders are more interested in the outcome as opposed to overseeing every step of the way. They want the work to be done but it’s up to the person doing the work to figure out the path.

So what happens as your team grows?

If you are a High Control leader, more and more decisions and requests for input come pouring across your desk. Soon you are inundated and you become the bottleneck for your team. Everything comes to a screeching halt until you attend to it. While you hang on for dear life, your team sits around sipping beverages until the decision gets made.

Sounds like everyone should be a Low Control leader, right? Not so fast. If you are a Low Control leader, and your team grows but you do not create a strong system, that’s not a win either. While you happily release control to your team, it’s every person for himself and anarchy ensues. No one leads or guides and thus your team members create conflicting systems, tools, and processes. Some decisions may even cancel each other out or team members work at cross purposes with each other because everyone does what they think is best.

Neither of these is an ideal situation. So what do you do to unleash your team’s potential?

You move from being a Gatekeeper to being a River Maker.

The Gatekeeper is the High Control leader. This leader stands at the gate to ensure that the right decisions are made and that her feedback is critical to every process. She decides if the gate opens up to let the new decision go through. But it’s an extremely limiting system.

Take the number of people on your team and add a zero to it [1]. If you have 5 people, think about 50. If you have 50 people, think about 500. How would you manage a team of ten times your current number of people? What about all the decisions that would now come your way in managing a team of that size?

Gatekeeper leaders try to hold onto the gate controls as long as possible. They like to know everything going on and feel that they are inadequate as a leader if someone asks them something that they don’t have the answer to.

But what that actually communicates is that the organization will not be able to scale effectively if you as the leader continue with this kind of leadership style.

On the other hand, a River Maker points people in the right direction, sets guidelines for them, and then releases the power, energy, and production of their efforts into a gushing river of productivity.

The leader must clarify for the team what the outcome is. Everyone must have clarity in what the end product is to be. This way, the river flows in one direction, with everyone pointing the same way.

But it is not enough just to clarify the vision. To help make sure that the river stays within the banks, you must also define the riverbanks. These are the philosophy or values of how things get done.

For example, say that a team has the two values of Efficiency and Care for People. These are both very important values. However, they can come into conflict with each other.

The team that says Efficiency is the highest value will try to pare processes, squeeze the most out of every dollar and every person, and in the process can burn people out or make them feel devalued.

A team that says Care for People is more important may become inefficient as they take time to listen or find ways to adjust for people’s challenges and unexpected crises while losing track of the time and tasks.

The River Maker carves out riverbanks by saying, “We value people first above everything else and want them to know and feel we care. That means that we will do everything within our means to listen, communicate and treat people with care. But the next value under that is efficiency, which means that everything outside those moments and opportunities must have efficient processes for us to create the bandwidth for us to care for people well.” This statement is an example of a riverbank that helps the water know which way to flow.

Without these types of banks, the water may overflow and flood. Some people may ignore Care for People and Efficiency altogether and decide that Leveraging Technology is most important. After implementing a phone system with 32 menu options and people getting stuck in infinite loops, now your organization has disenfranchised a large portion of your customers or constituents because you have been neither caring for people nor efficient!

The river banks avoid this kind of scenario and instead channel people into effective teamwork.

River Makers point to the outcome by clarifying the outcome — what the team is supposed to accomplish. The leader also puts these philosophies of working in place but allows the team to decide how to implement this. If the leader steps in and dictates to the team what tools, processes, and steps the team needs to take, she is turning back into being a Gatekeeper.

Granted, there are some situations that certain tools do need to be used, for the good of the organization and to avoid chaos. But this should be a very small circle. The majority of decisions about process should be left to the team to decide and build so that you as a River Maker leader can make bandwidth to address the higher-level strategic decision-making that only you can do. Because you see a larger scope of factors and situations, you can focus on the broader organizational decisions because your team is carrying the details that you used to execute.

Is this scary? Certainly! It is hard to give up control or give up the need to know everything or give up the need to be involved in every conversation. But as you trust the team, train them, and empower them to achieve the outcome, you will see the capacity of you, your team — and your organization — grow.

What are ways that you have learned to unleash your team’s potential? Comment below.

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[1] Concept of adding a zero: Craig Groeschel Leadership Podcast

2 replies added

  1. Gerald Oliver December 30, 2019 Reply

    Warmest Greetings….This is beautiful. It reveals the real you that I saw the first time we met. I am delighted to see you in full blossom!
    Do you teach this material as a seminar?

    • Angela Yee December 30, 2019 Reply

      Gerald, great to hear from you! I have taught on these concepts and other leadership development topics. Hope you sea well!

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