December 15

The Challenge of Delegating!


One of the toughest challenges for leaders at any level, but especially passionate younger leaders, is navigating the dichotomy of having too much on their plate on the one hand but not being able (or willing) to delegate items off their plate on the other. With the pace of business, family, and life in general there just isn’t time to hand things off: it’s quicker to do it yourself and keep moving than to hand something off just to get it handed back again needing to be “fixed.” As tempting as that mindset is, though, there is a serious flaw in it: you can do it for a while but you can’t do it forever (especially as your organization grows) and three things are going to happen over time:

  • You will become less productive: There are only so many hours in the day and there’s only one of you. The longer you stay on this hamster wheel the deeper you dig the hole of everything having to come to you to be done “right.” Before long you end up just being another doer instead of the leader.
  • Your organization will become less productive: There’s only so much you can do on any given day so the organization is now limited because it can only move as fast or as far as you have the bandwidth (and time) to go. Plus, you have no time to think beyond today’s mountain of tasks which means your organization stagnates because nobody is looking at tomorrow.
  • You will flame out: The constant pressure of that mountainous to-do list coupled with the stress of knowing that you need to be thinking forward, but can’t, not only affects your organization but it will affect your health, your family, and your satisfaction level. It’s going to hit your physically, mentally, and spiritually:

This problem will eventually suck the passion right out of you, your organization, and your family!

So, what do we do? Let’s talk about 4 things leaders can do right now to start changing this paradigm:

  • Accept responsibility: Whether you’re the CEO, President, VP, or working your way through the supervisor/manager level you took this job and you stepped onto this platform to lead your organization somewhere. Nobody takes a job with the intent of staying where they are (well, nobody who reads this kind of blog does). You have a vision for where you’re going and that vison involved growth of some kind. The problem is that in chasing that vision you forgot to prepare the way to achieve it. In other words, you lost sight of your people. If we’re honest about why we truly don’t delegate, it’s because we’re afraid to give up control. The reason we’re afraid to give up control is because we don’t trust that the person we’re handing the task off to will do as good a job as we will and we don’t have time to “train them up.” But if you’re the leader…then who’s fault is it that they’re not “ready?”

So, step 1 – accept your role as the leader and make this process a priority

  • Take a long view: Too often delegation looks something like “I don’t have time to do this task…who can I throw it to?” Or “I don’t have time to do this list of stuff – what can I throw off my plate to somebody else?” Now while that’s a technique…it’s not a plan. You’re looking at delegation as a task when you should see it as a process. As strange as it may seem people, even in this century, have not learned to read minds. The leader who “throws” tasks off his plate is already behind the power curve. Our job as leaders is to define and communicate a vision; chart a course towards that vision; and influence, motivate, teach, mentor, and coach our people to get there. That means you have to, over time, learn to communicate your vision – over and over. They have to learn how you think, why you make decisions; they need to see what “right” looks like – not just once, but as many times as it takes. Delegating is not a task – it’s a process of instilling a thought process (a culture) into your organization over time so that your folks know how you think, what you expect, what you would accept as “right,” and where you, as the leader, want to go. That process weaves its way through every meeting, every coaching session, every feedback loop: every touch point you have is an opportunity to teach them and grow them. Remember something really important: your inability to delegate tasks implies and signals that you don’t trust those to whom you would be delegating it. Nobody wants to stay in an environment like that very long. If you want to keep good people…you need to learn to grow those people.

So, step 2 – look at delegating as a process, not a product. Learn to teach, mentor, grow, and influence your people over time.

  • Learn the difference between authority and responsibility. One of the biggest mistakes we see leaders make is they “delegate” responsibility for a task without delegating the authority to properly complete that task. In other words, they hand it off, don’t equip the person they handed it off to, and then blame that person for not getting it done the way they wanted. As a leader you can delegate authority but a true leader never delegates responsibility because at the end of the day there is only one person truly responsible for your organization: you. So when you hand something off you have to learn to do a few things that maintain the responsibility in your hands but places the authority to complete the project in theirs: give clear guidance about what you expect the end result to look like (look at this as the left and right limits inside of which your person has to work); give a clear timeline along with check-in points (depending on the experience of that person they may need more checks than others. This also means you have to be far enough out that there is time for check-ins). You have to be prepared to give direct and useful feedback at each check-in. Remember, you gave them an expectation and the boundaries within which they could work – now you have to help them stay within those boundaries so that they are making progress and not spinning. There is nothing worse, for you or for them, than them showing up at the last hour with a task completed wrong – it’s infuriating to you but it’s also infuriating to them. Nobody wants to fail and they’ll get even more discouraged with you because you let them fail. Your job is not to micro-manage them (that would be telling them “how” to do it) but to coach them along their road of doing it. As a staff officer I had more than one commander known for their willingness to “red mark” correspondence. They never wrote it for me – they told me what they wanted, made me write it, red-marked everything I’d written, and made me re-write it until I got it right. It became a contest – how many iterations could I get it down to. The best part will be when that person comes in and gets it right the first time – you will see the impact of their knowledge that they have earned your trust – you’ll see the satisfaction of a job well done - you’ll see a smile so wide you’ll realize that your time has been well-spent…and you’ll have one more thing off your plate.

So, step 3 – remember that you maintain responsibility for the success of the task, but you have to teach, coach, and mentor your team members by giving them the authority to accomplish it.

In short, the most challenging yet exciting and rewarding aspect of leadership is watching people grow. That, at the end of the day, is your ultimate responsibility – to raise the water level, raise the performance level, and prepare your people for their next level of responsibility. That’s the beauty of delegation as a process instead of a task: it not only helps you be a better balanced and more effective leader but it grows, prepares, and raises the water level of every single person working for you. And that, at the end of the day, is what you will go home and always know you did well!

Welcome to leadership – now go lead!


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