Delegating seems to be a somewhat polarizing concept. For many of us when we hear it, we think (shudder) of a former leader who fell into one of two camps:
- First on the far end is the leader who was notorious for assigning out all of their own work (under the auspice of being a great delegator), and everyone on the team wondered what in the heck she did if everyone else was doing her job for her. Worked well for her in the short term when there wasn’t much transparency in the workplace. Given the seismic change in how organizational cultures now promote collaboration and visibility, these leaders are generally a relic of the past. And if you’re reading this and seeing your current reality, disrupt yourself and hire a new leader. Yes, you can actually do this—it’s called finding a new team or organization!
- Second on the extreme opposite end is the leader who is either so insecure or shortsighted he doesn’t delegate anything because he subscribes to the adage of “If you want something done right, do it yourself” philosophy. Thus he hoards every project, because he doesn’t believe his team can rise to the effort. Or, just as bad, he thinks the time invested in teaching someone is too daunting, and it’s just easier to work more/harder/later and complete it himself. This becomes a vicious cycle and a self-fulfilling prophecy. This leader then becomes a martyr and ends up punishing team members for their incompetence and laziness. And the cycle continues quarter after quarter, year after year, because the leader is incapable of escaping his own paradigm. Insane, right? But not so uncommon. And often it’s not entirely his fault as the culture may well reinforce this style of leadership.
We’ve all either worked for or have been one of these types. It’s okay—just admit it. To quote a friend of mine, “You think they don’t know. They do.”
In the middle of this spectrum is the leader we all want to work for—and ultimately become ourselves. It’s the secure person who knows their strengths and weaknesses, is comfortable talking about them publicly, and hires strategically to complement them. This leader has a mindset that their key job is to recruit and retain the smartest people possible (ideally smarter than them) and then coach, teach, and build their capabilities. This takes extraordinary patience and a genuine belief that building competence is their job. They are often able to take a long view because their culture and own leader promote it. These leaders are rare and likely exist because they are modeling what they saw in a previous leader that changed their own view and behaviors.
Attention, all leaders out there: Where are you on this litmus scale? Master delegator or master hoarder? I speak frequently at conferences and companies for a book I authored, Management Mess to Leadership Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow. Throughout my speeches, I ask participants to rate themselves on a scale of 1 (total mess) to 10 (total success) on each of the challenges. I’m always struck (and not in a good way) how high people rate themselves. Most leaders seem to weigh in at a 7/8/9 on each challenge, when I’d give myself a 3/4/5 on all of them.
Maybe I’m really the worst manager ever (highly likely according to lots of posts on Glassdoor). Or perhaps you’re not a great as you think you are.
Delegating is tricky and can be a slippery slope. If you want to build a culture where everyone offers their best, be deliberate about how you approach it. Take some time to explain why you’re assigning someone a task. What will it allow them to do and thus allow you to do in its place? In almost every case, explaining as much about the why, as the what, will yield lasting dividends.
Leading a team requires a different skillset than working as an individual contributor. To succeed in the face of new challenges, first-level leaders need to shift how they think and act. Download our latest guide and develop your people into a high-performing team.
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