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Leading is Delegating


Leading, by definition, is not a solo activity. So why do so many leaders try to go it alone, hoarding their team’s roles and responsibilities and struggling to delegate?

In more than 30 years of corporate consulting and executive coaching, I’ve discovered a few common causes. One of the most frequent? The mistaken idea that delegating is lazy.

A few years ago, our team was hired by a mid-sized manufacturing company with poor productivity and demoralized staff to help identify the production snags, retain talent, and generally turn things around.

We didn’t have to look far for signs of trouble. When I spoke with one of the managers on the floor about how he delegates to his team, his words surprised me.

“Delegation? I’m not a fan,” he said. “It’s just getting other people to do my job.”

I was taken aback by such a fundamental misunderstanding of his role. But it explained a lot of the challenges I’d seen in the organization. No wonder they were getting stuck. And no surprise, there was rampant discontent and high turnover: no one could do their work. They were micromanaged and felt undermined every day on the job.

A variation of that conversation has been repeated many times in my career. And my reply is inevitably the same: there’s a big difference between knowing what’s happening on your team and being directly involved in every decision, meeting, and move.

The former is empowering. You know what’s happening, what’s essential, and can make high-level strategic decisions based on that. The latter is a straight path to burnout for the leader and inefficiency and frustration for your team. To be an effective force multiplier, you have to be willing to give up control of how things get done while retaining control of what gets done…keeping the focus on the key priorities and objectives of your team or group.

To maximize your impact, let go.

Your job as a leader is to be a force-multiplier, to help your team accomplish together what you can’t do alone. If you keep it all for yourself, you're going to hinder results and crush morale.

So why do so many leaders still hold the reins so tight? For a variety of reasons.

Fear of losing control

Let’s start with control issues. Many leaders have a hard time delegating because they know they can do a task better and quicker than their subordinates. They just can’t seem to let it go.

This tendency among leaders to want to do it all has an obvious source: most organizations promote the best doers, not necessarily the people with the greatest latent leadership abilities. There’s a pervasive “magic door theory” that somehow, at promotion, they’ll instantly transform into leaders, like Clark Kent emerging from the phone booth as Superman. And most organizations don’t help their leaders build their leadership capabilities, which are different from job functions or management skills (more on that below).

It’s more comfortable

Sometimes, doing the old job is just more comfortable. We’ve seen this at every level of organizations: leaders are more comfortable working one or even two levels down in the organization than at their level. They know how to do the old job. At some point, it had probably become easy. The new job is different, uncomfortable, probably more ambiguous and abstract than their former role. It’s easy and comfortable doing the old work.

Early in my career at Pacific Gas and Electric, a senior director (let’s call him Tom) of a high-level engineering team was the ultimate work hog. His direct reports had little to do besides take legendarily long coffee breaks. Meanwhile, he was buried in his corner office under stacks of manila folders, shouldering a teams’ worth of work.

Tom wasn’t only making himself overwhelmed and inefficient–he was depriving his team of the opportunity to develop by not delegating to them.

It feeds the ego

Along with control issues, some leaders take on all the things because it fuels their sense of self-worth and makes them feel essential.

The simplest executive coaching client I ever had, a senior director of a team of 400, had this problem. We weren’t two minutes into our first session when his email pinged, and he immediately spun around to respond before continuing our conversation. This pattern repeated multiple times in the hour that followed.

Throughout these ongoing interruptions, he shared the story of his life, which was in a disastrous state. He was on the verge of divorce and had no real relationship with his two teenage kids. He arrived at the office at 5 am, left at 6 pm, and worked at home until 10 when he’d collapse into bed. His sense of purpose relied upon being always-on, ready to respond. Not only was this destroying his personal life, but he was spread unsustainably thin at work.

The fix was simple. We put him on an email diet–just 30 minutes at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And, we agreed he wouldn’t work from home and on weekends. He was anxious, but he did it. And it didn’t take long for things at work and at home to improve dramatically.

His team was there to step in and step up. They just needed a chance.

Fear of failure

In most cases, we know that we can do the work better, faster, and with fewer opportunities for mistakes than our team members. So, we fear delegating because their results won’t be as good as ours. Yet, in doing so, we take away their opportunity to learn and grow new capabilities…they never develop the skills they need because we never let them stumble, fumble, bumble, and learn. As a great leader/friend of ours said, “Why should I deprive my team of the development opportunity by doing their work for them?”

Up and out, not down and in.

There are, of course, practical reasons that make delegation necessary. One person can only do so much. Try to do it all, and you’ll be the proverbial headless chicken, rushing from one task to the next.

But there’s a higher reason, too. As a leader, your most valuable resources are your brain and your time. To be most effective, you have to make the best use of both. That’s your real job. And you can’t do it if you’re interjecting into every aspect of the operation.

To engage your team, you need to be a performance motivator, coach, and change agent–not a busy-body task hog. Instead of working down into the business, you need to have your head up, looking ahead. Leading.

Here at Whitewater, we believe true leaders are learners who challenge their thinking and habits, teachers who educate your team through your actions and statements, and stewards of the values that guide your organization. You show by your words and deeds which behaviors are in-bounds–and which are out.

Becoming a leader–learner, teacher, steward–is an ongoing journey that benefits leaders AND your teams and organizations. The bosses I mentioned above were missing a foundational element in the recipe for success: the ability to engage others in the journey–and the courage to let them contribute to something no one could do alone.

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