Scaling from One Leader to Several Leaders

Organizations and teams often need to mature from one central leader to several empowered leaders. Sometimes that’s a founder delegating real authority and ownership (not just helpers who are doing what the founder tells them to do). Sometimes it’s a team within a bigger organization that is moving from a single leader into a team of teams.

As the leader who is trying to encourage, empower, and hold accountable leaders to step up, this is so difficult! You’re (barely) keeping all the plates spinning, and you don’t want them to crash to the ground in the transition. You know how to do things (the way you like), and it’s hard trust that you can give this person real authority to make decisions, instead of just helping you run things the way you have been doing.

There’s an element where many leaders need to be near or at their breaking point to be willing to make the transition, because if you’re not exhausted keeping it all running, it feels safer (and makes you feel important) to keep things running the way you like.

When you’re ready to empower leaders, there’s a few principles to keep in mind:

  • Show don’t Tell – Don’t just talk about the change, show it in writing (e.g. publish what these newly empowered leaders are allowed to do or approve)
  • Lead from the Front – After you tell people about these new leaders’ authorities, make sure you are modeling the behavior of deferring to them — don’t go to a meeting and overrule or question them. Get out of their way to let them decide and lead. If you have concerns, discuss things with them behind closed doors, so that you can give helpful feedback, but not undermine their new (and still being verified) authority.
  • Over-communicate the Change — say it so many times you’re sick of saying it, because it takes people many times to digest and understand a change

A few tangible actions:

  1. Clearly communicate your organization’s/team’s strategy, so that these newly empowered leaders know where they’re leading people — make sure you’ve communicated high-level vision, mission, multi-year goals, current year goals, and associated metrics (Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are a great way to think about these key goals and metrics)
  2. Publish a meeting cadence table that shows the most important meetings, their frequency, their owner (and really respect who owns the meeting), their purpose, and their inputs and outputs
  3. Publish clear details of these new leaders’ responsibilities and authorities (see RRAM for a possible approach)
  4. Consider publishing a cultural expectations list, maybe a top 10, of how your organization/team works, to give context of the rules of engagement to support these specific responsibilities and authorities

One difficult aspect to navigate is how much time do you give someone to get up to speed and perform. I’ve found that often early red flags/concerns don’t get better, and as a leader, it’s easy to keep hoping that they’ll step up (“Hope is not a strategy” was often reminded to me by great leader I know). You do you to give a new person some time to get up to speed, but if it’s not going well, you should quickly start some direct (blunt) conversations to determine if you need to change course. One thing to remember: You have to look in the mirror, and consider if you are undermining them, and micromanaging around or through them, which is not a recipe for success.


  1. Hi Mike,

    I always like reading your posts, and this is a continued discussion I have with peers and teams.

    My approach is a little different. Documenting the powers is excellent for the first week or so. Information like that gathers virtual dust when people get busy or lose interest.

    Your “leading from the front” principle unravels once you say, “Get out of the way.” The focus I help others is “leading from behind” (not like the meme of someone sitting on a block while others pull), more like a shepherd leading a flock and giving little taps with a cane (a leaders guidelines) to keep the community from veering off course while letting them find their path to get to the end goal (letting the leaders figure it out for themselves and have more ownership of their leadership path without turning a blind eye altogether).

    Over-communicating is a double-edged sword. There is a risk of getting tuned out.

    In matters where behaviour changes are needed, I find it best not to think of it as a mature thing but as more evolution. Maturity implies there is a set level to achieve by hitting certain checks on a list. While with an evolutionary view, there is the opportunity for adaptation with bi-directional symmetrical communication; everyone can get to where they want to go and achieve true empowerment.

  2. Hey Jeremy, I’m so glad you enjoy my posts. You make some great points!

    I agree that the role/responsibility information gathers virtual dust quickly — it can be very powerful to have a culture that maintains that type of information (at the right level of detail) in a wiki-type platform, but it’s worse to have out of date information lurking about confusing people.

    Good point on leading from front vs. rear — I think the servant leadership concept is really powerful. I think ‘lead from the front’ is powerful when talking about modeling the behavior/culture you want to see, but I agree that leadership is more powerful when you provide vision, set culture, and get out of the way to avoid slowing the team down.

    Great point about maturity — I think of it like a maturity curve that you’re trying to move up, not a binary “not mature” to “mature”.

    Thanks for the detailed response, great points!

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