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Thursday, November 16, 2020

The Essence of Delegation



What prevents most people from becoming effective leaders? They believe that, if they have the authority to make an important decision, and must take direct responsibility for the outcome—especially if that choice proves to be a mistake—they must make that decision personally. It seems impossible to consider that they might allow a subordinate to make the decision under any circumstances. It seems too great a risk—bordering on culpable folly—to allow someone else to make a potentially erroneous decision for which you will ultimately be held responsible. Yet that is an essential part of all good leadership.


Leaders are continually urged to become better delegators. It’s sensible advice. Much of the overwork and pressure that is endemic in organizations comes from a simple inability to delegate. Whether you call it “staying in the loop” or “keeping your finger on the pulse,” or use any of the other fancy ways of describing the rooted tendency to want to be involved in everything that might possibly affect you, the behavior is the same. It’s why circulation lists have become bloated out of all proportion, and people waste large amounts of their time attending pointless meetings.

The result is obvious. Their subordinates are given boring, routine, trivial work—and expected to like it—while they hold onto anything interesting that might affect actual business results.
But have you noticed that almost nobody has the slightest problem in delegating work that they see as boring, trivial, routine, or inconsequential? They cannot be rid of that fast enough. What they cling onto—like leeches—is whatever they think is important, especially if the result might reflect on them or alter their standing in the eyes of the people above them. The result is obvious. Their subordinates are given boring, routine, trivial work—and expected to like it—while they hold onto anything interesting that might affect actual business results.

That isn’t delegation. That’s the action of any privileged person who can afford servants to handle the boring parts of life, while he or she sits around and pretends to be above such mundane concerns. It turns subordinates into slaves or despised gophers, who can learn little of any use for their future development, since they are rarely allowed to deal with anything challenging. It’s also extremely risky. Should some crisis occur, when passing important work to subordinates becomes an unavoidable necessity, those subordinates will have neither the knowledge nor the experience to handle it. Mistakes and muddles are inevitable, further reinforcing the leader’s comfortable view that only he or she has what it takes to deal with important issues correctly.

Many of the greatest leaders spend nearly all their time coaching others to do the jobs that they would otherwise have done, believing (correctly) that their real job is to train and develop their subordinates, not carry out tasks they could perfectly well have delegated.
Delegation is inviting others to share your full workload, not just the boring bits. It is getting them involved in ways that can add to your own thoughts and ideas. It is using all the extra ability and creativity that they can bring. Of course, it inevitably involves some risk: the risk that they will make a mistake that you might not have made yourself. But then, they may very possibly save you from mistakes you definitely would have made, so it balances out. Indeed, many of the greatest leaders spend nearly all their time coaching others to do the jobs that they would otherwise have done, believing (correctly) that their real job is to train and develop their subordinates, not carry out tasks they could perfectly well have delegated.

Being a major-league leader means delegating everything you possibly can—and then some. It means accepting that you will continually carry the can for things that others have done; and dealing with that by training and developing them to do what you ask them as well as possible, not by hanging onto the decisions yourself. The essence of delegation is trust, which is why it is so often poorly done. If you don’t trust your subordinates, why are you their leader? They would be far happier and better off without you. Consider that.


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Comments:
CC,

Nice post! I whole-heartedly agree with you on this. I see these problems every DAY! I think the biggest problem is that from the day we enter the corporate world, the culture breeds competition into everything, including job positions. Too often managers have seen people they managed move up the ladder faster; therefore they hold onto anything important, just in case. Keep it up, and remember to write an opinion on what happens when risks are taken and fail.

Good work!

Dan H.
 
Thanks, Dan. I did write a kind of approach to what happens when things fail in my post When Sh*t Happens. Maybe I'll return to the topic and write some more, as you suggest.

Keep reading, my friend.
 
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