Creating genuine autonomy in your startup nowadays is vital for any leadership team that aims to achieve something remarkable. Nevertheless, I will not be exaggerating if I say I find it in less than 25% of the companies I talk to. You might think you’re leading an autonomous team where, in fact, you merely have a very convoluted mechanical turk situation. And creating autonomy is essential for several factors, but I believe the most important one—for me—would surprise you. Autonomy is a highly egotistical endeavor, in my opinion. Why? And how to self-assess?

Yes, an autonomous team means you—as a leader—will be able to work at a higher altitude instead of being down in the weeds all the time. Certainly, it will allow your team to move faster and achieve better results. Sure, autonomy can unlock brilliance because you’ll be maximizing people’s creativity and potential. All true. Yet, the egoistic reason I give all my clients is that life’s too short to lead a team that’s not autonomous. It’s as simple as that—any team that’s not autonomous will not be able to contain A-players for long. Therefore it’s not an organization I’d be willing to spend most of my waking hours leading. Now, are you suffering from fauxtonomy?

Playing Pretend

Fauxtonomy occurs when we claim to enable autonomy in our organization but instead hamper it, either by constricting people too much or providing them with no guidance. The former is most common in teams that are growing rapidly and have benefited from early success. Things get more complex, and the “old guard” has to make way for new leaders and more senior staff to take the lead. Yet, these original leaders find it extremely difficult to let others call the shots and make their own decisions.

It doesn’t have to be as obvious as being the backseat driver to the CEO you brought in to replace you (see Starbucks), yet it’s probably not that far from it. For example, you might have promoted someone because you trusted them and saw that you were thinking similarly enough that you could count on them when you delegated projects. However, once these people are promoted or seek their real autonomy, you realize they’re not carbon copies of yourself and tend to make different decisions or think differently about things. When that happens, what is your reaction?

If you slam the brakes to get them back to your way of doing things, you’re not creating leaders but glorified babysitters—people who are supposed to relay your thinking and never take the initiative. You’re capping the entire organization’s potential to your own, as opposed to utilizing the genius of all the people you worked hard to hire and train.

Convincing Yourselves

The hardest part about fixing this is that it can be almost impossible to spot if you’ve been doing it for a while. Your people have learned what you expect, and reward, and therefore, those you’re left with or those who want to be promoted are exactly those who are willing to accept or enable such a low-autonomy environment.

I once worked with the executive team of a unicorn where the CEO was sure he was—in general—a terrific delegator and created a solid leadership group that could take the company to its next stage. Listening to him, I got the same impression. Only after I witnessed firsthand the conversations in that leadership forum and talked to the executives one-on-one did I realize the chasm between his view and reality. His people were definitely autonomous—but like children being autonomous in a sandbox. Nothing strategic was ever contested. Whenever the stakes got high enough, the CEO would step in and take over without at least trying to coach people to be able to do the work themselves the next time. He was not coaching for sanity.


Then we have the exact opposite, the mirror of the founder puppeteering the executives. That’s when we mistake autonomy for a complete lack of leadership—letting people do whatever they choose without any shred of guidance. Written like that, you might think there is no way anyone actually thinks that. You’d be wrong. After reading so much about leadership, making people happy, or Steve Jobs’ quote about bringing in brilliant people and moving out of their way, some leaders essentially think the right way forward is to become absent leaders.

This chaos might make people happy in the short term for feeling like they’re unshackled. It might make your day-to-day a bit easier at first, as you won’t be needed for minutia like your opposite executive from the previous section. However, this, too, is fauxtonomy because it is not about creating a team that’s so in sync with the strategy that it can achieve things without your hand gripping the wheel. It’s about hoping a thousand monkeys will eventually type up something better than ChatGPT.

Assessing Yourself

When I cannot talk to the leadership team to see how they operate and get their accounts firsthand, I sometimes ask the executives I work with a few questions in an attempt to help them see where autonomy is lacking in their organizations. Yes, you’ll get faster and better results working with someone like me. Nevertheless, you can start things on your own.

Consider these questions:

  • How much objection are you getting? For example, when you try to promote something, are you getting healthy pushback from your people who want to ensure they understand why you want it and suggest different approaches?
  • How much hindsight wisdom are you noticing? That is, instead of people objecting in advance, like in the previous question, you see “I told you so” after the fact. That’s another indication that people feel the safety of speaking up or suggesting something different only after it’s too late.
  • What types of questions are getting to you? If you are approached for details, you’re probably lacking in autonomy. On the other hand, if no one ever asks you anything, you have chaos.
  • Are you getting enough “surprises”? Autonomy means not everything is done precisely as you’d expect it to happen. People should be utilizing a healthy balance of asking for forgiveness instead of permission in advance to move with agility.

Getting It Just Right

As with anything about leadership, there’s no simple list of steps you can take to reach perfection. Working with people is not like coding—there’s no compiler or unit test to quickly tell if we’re wrong. However, you can work on your personal “defaults” in order to start progressing in the right direction.

Avoid enabling a dependency on you by being too accessible. When people can ask you little questions whenever they need to, you become a crutch. Notice themes in the types of issues you’re asked to help with and create general guidelines that your people can use to make decisions without you.

Understanding what’s at stake and the correct type of coaching for each scenario (see the breakdown here), strive to help your leaders make their own mistakes and learn from them. You’ll be surprised how many of those mistakes you notice don’t end up mattering all that much or would even turn out to be a better idea than you had thought.

Again, think egotistically: life’s too short to lead an average team. To create a team worth leading, you have to work on it.