Don’t just tell your students what to do; help them figure it out themselves.

The “old school” way to be a leader is command-and-control: the boss or coach tells the subordinates what to do. This hierarchical, top-down approach isn’t always a bad idea, but we’re developing much better methods for learning and leading.

The problem with a completely top-down approach is that it only works if everything goes exactly according to plan. And in the real world, things rarely go according to plan: they’re messy and unpredictable, and to survive and thrive you need adaptability. It’s just hard to be adaptable when you’re totally dependent on the direction of someone above you.

In chaotic and fast-moving environments, we often want to discard the old top-down approach and instead encourage self-organization.

Self-organization is when you empower a person or group to figure things out on their own. Instead of relying on the leader for direction, the team is given guidelines from the leader that steer them toward figuring things out themselves.

In the product and technology world, self-organization has been popular for decades. It stems from the lean management revolution pioneered by Toyota in the 1950s and 1960s, and has since been adopted in the software engineering field, where it’s known as agile methodologies.

The specifics of these methodologies can quickly get complicated, but the core ideas are simple:

  • Empower your people to be autonomous.
  • Focus on continuous improvement.
  • Embrace unpredictability.
  • Pivot fast when needed.
  • Prioritize delivering actual results.

Interestingly, the field of ecological psychology is teaching us that self-organization isn’t just for businesses: it’s equally important to skill development for athletes.

Top-down instruction, where the coach tells you exactly what to do and expects you to duplicate the technique perfectly, simply isn’t an effective way to teach. This is because:

  • It falsely assumes your coach’s way is “the one right way” to do things.
  • Your body isn’t the same as your coach’s body.
  • No technique is ever executed exactly the same way twice.

A better way to coach athletes is through self-organization: give them an understanding of the result they want to achieve, set constraints that help guide them toward the correct outcome, and let them figure out the messy details themselves.


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