How To Avoid Becoming A Helicopter Leader

There he was, hovering in the background.

His presence was undeniable: indirect stare accompanied by a slight tilt of the head, positioned to listen in on our conversation with seemingly bionic-grade hearing.

“Supervisor” on his badge defined his position. What happened next confirmed his intention.

A front-line associate had just apologized for a previous service mishap. While far from a verbal masterpiece, the sentiment was heartfelt and appreciated. We were pleased with the resolution.

Suddenly, the supervisor sprang forward, launching into an anxiously un-scripted, “I know he has apologized, but please allow me to . . .”

I didn’t hear the rest . . . whispers of “Helicopter Leader” were too busy echoing through the intuitive side of my brain.

Self-Discipline Leads to Love

Confusion about your role in driving employee engagement, overcompensating for previous relationships, or an outright fear of failure can result in leadership behaviors mirroring those commonly associated with Helicopter Parenting.

Where many leaders tend to go astray lies within the source of their original of intent.

When you consciously act on a set of core values . . . setting guidelines, standards, and accountability for performance . . . it isn’t considered hovering, overcontrolling, or micromanaging.

It’s simply good leadership.

Practicing self-discipline is key. Openly share your vision of a successful relationship with the team, one that includes your presence during day-to-day operations. Then allow for growth and development from life’s naturally occurring processes.

Feedback and corrective action become part of a healthy, loving relationship, one built on trust and genuine care.

Recognizing some of the pitfalls of Helicopter Leadership is the best way to avoid becoming one.

Let Players Play

Pitfall: If I don’t immerse myself in my employee’s performance, I’m not a good leader.

It was the late John Wooden, legendary men’s basketball coach at UCLA, who verbalized “Practice is the place for teaching.”

We’ll embrace that sentiment and take it one step further by adding, “Performing is the place for learning.”

Consider the most vivid memories from throughout your development journey. Were they lessons learned in a classroom or training program? Or were they moments forged from an unforgettable life experience?

Train your people to the best of your ability. Pour your heart, soul, and passion into preparing them to represent themselves and your organization. Proudly recognize the point when you can say, “You’re ready.”

Then let the players play.

Monitor the overall performance of your team and resist the urge to address every nuance of behavior.

Then create insightful memories through timely feedback, correction, and recognition.

These lessons will linger far beyond a document or presentation, generating a depth of engagement that results in quality performance and a stronger sense of loyalty.

Tall Tim Example: Mishandling Ship Handling

One of the unspoken rules of ship handling is “Never turn to port” . . . that’s turn left in sailor talk.

Faced with a complicated situation requiring action on our part, I asked my two Coast Guard Academy cadet trainees, both of whom had passed the rigorous Nautical Rules of the Road exam, what we should do?

They both agreed, “I’d recommend turning to port.”

I could have easily corrected their judgement on the spot. Instead, I asked for a volunteer to call the Captain, who by this time was below deck in his cabin, and share their recommendation.

When the cadet returned to the bridgewing, he was expressionless and pale.

“What did the Captain say?” I asked.

“He said he’d be right up.”

Sensing it would play out this way, I intercepted the Captain upon his arrival to the bridge. I briefed him on the immediacy of the moment and provided him my recommendation as to how we should proceed.

I then apologized for the inconvenience and described the intentions of my actions.

The Captain looked at me through the corner of his eye. He then smiled and nodded his head in subtle approval.

Breakdown: On paper, those two cadets were fully qualified to decide a proper course of action. But this wasn’t a case study or exercise.

Real life has its own way of teaching you the purpose behind scripted actions and behaviors.

Coming face-to-face with the consequences of a decision, without jeopardizing the safety or well-being of those involved, was a moment they would never forget.

Years later, I bumped into one of the individuals. An Officer by then, he was in the process of preparing for his own command and thanked me for the experience from that night. “I’ll always remember: Never turn to port!”

Purpose Behind Your Presence

Pitfall: I felt neglected or overlooked by my leader, so I’m overcompensating by controlling everything my employees do.

No one wants to experience being ignored, overlooked, or hung out to dry by their leader.

Attempting to remedy this emotional deficiency by being omnipresent and over-protective of your team could result in equally damaging levels of anxiety or frustration.

Take a moment to examine what you expected from a previous experience. Chances are, you weren’t looking for your leader to smother you, do everything for you or even with you.

You wanted to feel appreciated and supported, comfortable knowing your leader was engaged enough to be there when you needed them.

Incorporate that same spirit into the relationships you share with your team.

Remember that a leader’s role is to create an environment in which their followers can be successful.

Proactively engage with individuals to confirm performance commitments and identify potential challenges.  Offer your support by asking, “What can I do to help you succeed?” Then listen to responses and act on suggestions or requests.

Embracing this mindset creates confidence, fueling empowerment through a demonstrated trust in their judgement and abilities, and inspiring the legacy of a leader “who was there for me when I needed them most.”

Patience Breeds Resilience

Pitfall: I’m going to control multiple aspects of my team’s performance to prevent them from being hurt or disappointed by failure

The potential for failure will always be present in your work environment. This isn’t a bad thing.

The tension of an uncertain outcome keeps us mentally and physically prepared for sudden changes or obstacles along our path to success.

Displaying the patience required to successfully navigate uncertainty can be a challenge in our uber-competitive society. Fragments of anxiety begin forming far above the front-line, intensifying as they spiral downward through the hierarchy.

Be fully aware of that anxiety, but don’t allow it to overpower the relationships you’ve established with your team.

Promote clarity by filtering essential elements of urgency into your daily interactions. Recognize that providing the space necessary to perform isn’t setting your team up for failure. Its breeding resilience and preparing them for a future on their own.

Learning to fail is part of learning to fly.

Maintain accountability through standards and be open to change as you continue progress toward established goals and benchmarks.

Then enjoy the journey.

Clearance to Land

The supervisor in our opening salvo may or may not be a Helicopter Leader.

His actions, though, demonstrate the pitfalls of being over-involved in your team’s performance.

Viewed from the front-line associate’s perspective, the experience had been facilitated with genuine and heartfelt sincerity which resulted in our satisfaction and a positive impression of the organization.

From our perspective, there was no reason for the supervisor to engage with us, outside of a warm smile, a “Thank you for choosing us”, and an invitation to return.

This highlights the importance of letting your players play, supporting them through an engaged presence, and maintaining a level of patience that breeds confidence and resilience moving forward.

Hover on occasion and only when necessary. Trust me . . . your kids will be alright.

Thank you for spending your Tuesday with Tall Tim Talks!

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