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The Downside of “Foxhole Leadership”

November 2, 2021 | By John Warrillow

The Downside of “Foxhole Leadership”

Basketball coach Don Meyer was famous for something he calls “The Foxhole Test.” He encourages players to imagine themselves in a life-or-death battle and asks them to pick the teammates they would want in the trenches with them. The test is designed to break down the inevitable cliques and friendships that evolve on a team and identify the true leaders that players trust with their lives.

Foxhole leaders are often known for getting in the trenches with their teams. They typically lead by example and never delegate a task they are unwilling to do themselves. As a result, Foxhole Leadership produces disciples willing to do just about anything for their leader.

While the Foxhole Leadership style breeds loyal followers, it also has the potential to hold back the growth of your company. As a business leader, you know that you need to delegate the work to others to grow beyond your time commitment. At the same time, you know delegating can give your employees the impression that you’re not willing to get into the trenches with them.

Therefore, the most endearing leadership style is also more limiting. This contradiction can paralyze many founders. You want to demonstrate your leadership traits, yet doing so holds your company back. It is a paradox of leading an entrepreneurial team that Michele Hecken came to understand firsthand.

How Michele Hecken “Off-Boarded” Herself Without Undermining Her Credibility 

Hecken got her professional start in college by translating legal contracts from German to English. She parlayed that experience into starting Alpha Translations, which she grew to more than $4 million (USD) in sales. In the early days, Hecken did the translations herself. Once she was overwhelmed with work, she hired translators and promoted herself to proofreading their work.

As the business grew, the demands on Hecken’s time grew in lockstep, and soon she was working as hard as a proofreader as she was as a translator. She realized something had to change or her business would stop growing.

She decided to “off-board” herself from the proofreader role and drew a hard line in the sand. Hecken committed to stopping getting involved in the translation work and focused all her energy on building her company.

Hecken had to get over the guilt of not being in the trenches with her team of translators to make the transition. To help, she told them that she had a new role. She explained that, like any employee who switches jobs, she would be taking on new responsibilities and would not be available to them. Communicating her new role with clarity and precision helped Hecken’s employees realize she was not abandoning them because she was bored or lazy. She was leaving to go on to another and arguably more critical job inside her company.

Describing her new role allowed Hecken to minimize her guilt for leaving her team while preserving her status as a leader her employees could feel comfortable following. Ultimately the gamble paid off for Hecken, who sold Alpha Translations to RWS Group in 2019 for $6 million (USD) in cash, or around 6.7 times EBITDA.

Delegating is a tricky line to walk for any founder. Delegate everything, and you risk your employees perceiving you as an absentee leader. Instead, get clear about your new role, and your team will see you not as a layabout but as a leader with a new mission.