Skip to main content


Hands-off:  Sets goals, and initiatives.  Expects results with little care as to how they're reached.  A master of delegation and pushing accountability off to underlings.  Will take credit for his/her team's success but make examples out of people that fail.

Hands-on:  Provides guidance to staff.  Leading as the person who's been in his/her people's shoes.  A wealth of knowledge and wisdom.  Inspires people to live up to standards first, knowing that goals and initiatives will reached organically through growth.

Hands-in:  A 'Boss' who is in the weeds with his or her team.  This may seem like a dedicated person (and usually is), however forcing this person to both lead and work just as the rest of the team leaves gaps in the performance of both.  


In the following three examples, there will be a manger and a newly hired cook with a goal of making a soup.  


Manager: I need you to make me some soup.

Cook:  What kind of soup?

Manager:  You're the expert, that's what I'm bringing you in to determine

Cook:  I'll need $600 worth of ingredients and $1200 worth of kitchen utensils

Manager:  Why so much?

Cook:  That's what it costs.  I'm the expert remember?

Manager:  Ok, here's $1800

Cook makes a wonderful beef barley soup, good enough to earn the restaurant a Michelin star, however the venue that wanted the soup was vegan.  The customer is disgusted and ultimately lost, there's a surplus of kitchen supplies, and tons of wasted ingredients and time.  The manager fires the cook and tells the owner they were not up to the company standards.  They've got this great soup they can no longer reproduce as well and have to create a new one from square one.  This is accepted because the manager is usually fairly successful with these things.


Manager:  I need you to make me some soup.

Cook:  What kind of soup?

Manager:  The venue is vegan, do you have recommendations?

Cook:  Perhaps a nice mushroom soup?

Manager:  I think one of the members of the party is allergic.  Can you do a Lentil soup?

Cook:  With the kind of volume we're dealing with, I'm afraid the Lentils may come out mushy.

Manager:  Do you soak them first?

Cook:  Yes.  It's how I've always done it.

Manager:  Lets try skipping the soaking stage.  It may scale up in larger pots better.  Also, if we're going with lentil, let me know how you like to embellish the recipe and what extra materials you need.

Cook:  When I've made things on a smaller scale, I like to toss in chick-peas.  

Manager:  We'll price out the ingredients and I'll make sure you have the resources you need.  Tomorrow I'd like you to make a test batch, and we'll iterate a bit until we've got something we're both proud to present.

Soup comes out average, but gets better and better and was ultimately a hit at the venue.  The manager tells ownership that thanks to the collaboration, they have a dead simple recipe in place and can scale up production just by adding more people.  The manager is on top of the process, but not drawn into it.


Manager: I need you to make me some soup.

Cook:  What kind of soup?

Manager:  Lentil with spinach.  I'll be hands-on working with you throughout the process.

Cook:  Ok, where do I..

Manager:  Hold that thought, there's no time.  I'm in the middle of a batch right now.  Grab me a spoon to stir with.

Cook:  Do you have the recipe for that so I can make a separate batch?

Manager:  If I had the time to do that, I wouldn't need the help.  See if you can follow along and do what I do

You can already picture how this ends up.  The cook will never get it quite right and the manager will always have anxiety about fully trusting the cook on his/her own.  The cook will always need to have his/her hands literally in the pot.  Scaling up is impossible in this case because the manager is in the process, and not on top of it.

Some takeaways:

  • If you have to say "That's what you're here to figure out" as an answer to a "How do I.." question, you need to re-evaluate your skills.  You're encouraging your talent to use his or her bias in his or her favor (with little to no regard for real progress).  I've seen too many people hoist lofty goals on experts with zero effort to actually understand anything.  The cognitive bias here is palpable as the leader figures they'll pick up the skills through osmosis and everything will work out in the end because they have an 'expert'.  It never works out that way.
  • If your operational processes can't scale simply (by nothing more then adding additional FTEs), your leaders are failing.  It's their job to help run your business so it can grow.  It's you're leader's subordinates jobs to carry out the day to day operational tasks.  But before you look at them negatively, ask yourself - Are you leading and guiding them properly?  
  • Processes grow from hands-on leadership.  However, people mix hands-on with hands-in and never realize it.  Hands-in leaders can't grow.
  • As a bonus, all to often, a hands-in leader is misclassified by the organization as a loyal hands-on leader.  They're rewarded with more tasks because well..  they know how to get the job done.  They're so loyal!  All that ends up doing is creating the ultimate nightmare - a hands-in/hands-off leader.  Somebody who will never give his/her people the tools they need for success while going completely hands-off for everything they're too busy for.  A person who's incapable of getting his/her people what they need to succeed while simultaneously showing utter contempt and cavalier attitude towards everything else they're too busy for?  Where do I sign up?