True ‘hands-on’ leadership: what does this really involve?

Simon Black – 

To keep close to work some managers think that by asking about the numbers or looking over people’s shoulders is an effective way to work, but neither is actually helpful (Deming 1993):

  1. Micro management just interferes with work, distracts the people doing the work and often results in meddling, reduction in creativity (people have no point in giving ideas –  because the boss will question it/have their own idea anyway); this reduces trust and motivation.
  2. Asking for ‘the numbers’ (an attempt to show others a results-oriented mindset) merely indicates that you don’t care about the work. Remember, Douglas Adam’s answer to life, the universe and everything was 42, which didn’t really tell us anything helpful. Outcomes are much more that just the numbers (particularly more than just this week’s numbers)

Hands on leadership is NOT micro management. A  hands-on leader understands the work, knows the demands placed on the project, can ask helpful questions that enable people to develop better insight, has conversations that relate to the work and how it can be improved (rather than judging people or playing motivational mind-games). A hands-on leader knows their staff and people’s capabilities, sensitivities and aspirations. The leader also gives away responsibility, ensuring that people have skills, authority and information to enable them to make decisions that help species and ecosystems. A hands-on leader expects to get questions back form the team, including concerns, or ideas for improvement. A hands on leader listens.

Few of these characteristics can be found in micro-managers and those who just ask for the numbers. There is a better way to lead.

  • Orientate towards “hands-on” management, working with staff.
  • Have highly developed biological and/or operational skills .
  • Be able to prioritize the work by asking key questions.
  • Know people’s strengths; channel their energy and passion.
  • Understand cultural differences and handle views sensitively.
  • Check results with staff and empower them to get the job done.
  • Involve people doing the work with data, decisions, and changes.
  • Place responsibility for information with people doing the work.
  • Ensure that ‘what matters to biodiversity’ steers people’s work.
  • Have 2-way communication; clarifying, testing and listening.
  • Spend time with staff, listen to concerns & enable contributions.

Further Reading:

Black, S. A., Groombridge, J. J., & Jones, C. G. (2011a). Leadership and Conservation Effectiveness: Finding a Better Way to Lead.Conservation Letters, 4, 329-339.

Deming, W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.


Other things of interest:

Adams D. (1979) The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy. New York: Pocket Books

The Head, Heart and Guts of Leadership Character

Simon Black –

Are leaders born or made? This question dominated leadership thinking until the 1940s and, despite the growth in leadership development (particularly since the 1960s and 1970s) is a question that is still frequently asked in conservation circles.

The question (or its answer perhaps) is usually framed in terms of ‘personality’ on one hand and ‘skills and abilities’ on the other. ‘Personality’ is seen as something that we are born with, or at least is shaped in early shildhood, whilst many of our ‘skills and abilities’ can be learned. We can achieve this learning to some level of effectiveness or another, perhaps by training, or reflection of experiences or (common to many conservation leaders perhaps) by a form of unconscious ‘osmosis’.

As human beings we have enormously elastic capabilities – our learning is often governed by choice, not just genes. When I discuss practical leadership – working with people to get things done, I often use a simple three-part model – Head, Heart and Guts. An imbalance in one of these three dimensions would make us appear either cold, or gushing, or irrational, or inconsistent, or unpredictable, or a steamroller, or someone who bends in every wind (or worse).

The balancing of these things becomes important as we juggle the need for scientific rationality (e.g. in monitoring data) with managing the sensitivities of local communities, or trying to engage sponsorship from businesses or government.

Steven Covey talks about balancing ‘consideration’ with ‘courage’ (Heart versus Guts). We also know that we need to balance our ‘rational’ side with ’emotional’ empathy (Head versus Heart), and also maintain balance between our Guts and Head!

If you want to develop as an effective leader, then remember to develop skills in planning and decision-making in combination with interpersonal skills and the development of sound judgement.


Black, S.A. & Copsey, J.A. (2014b). Purpose, Process, Knowledge and Dignity in Interdisciplinary projects. Conservation Biology. 28 (5): 1139-1141. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12344

Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.

Jacobs, C.J. (2009) Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science. Penguin Group Portfolio, NY