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"Your most important task as a leader is to teach people how to think and ask the right questions so that the world doesn't go to hell if you take a day off." Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.

A day off? The whole thing will collapse! I'm the only one who can keep this business afloat. That may be true during the startup days, but as the organization grows, so too does the need for a multitude of perspectives, skills, and competencies. Delegating becomes one of the most critical functions of a leader... and one of the most difficult. How do leaders learn to let go?

"No One Can Do It as Well as I Do"

Why don't owners, founders, and leaders delegate responsibility to others within the organization? Often, they hold the pervasive belief that no one can do it as well as they do. "It" could be anything from sales to overseeing operations to keeping the books. They think it's easier, and less-time consuming, to do it themselves -and that doing so will yield better results.

Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, a thought leader in the field of business management, explains that two psychological processes come into play:

  • Faith in Supervision Effect. When work is performed under the leaders' control, it is seen as "better" than identical work done without their supervision.
  • Self-Enhancement Effect Leaders evaluate work more highly the more self-involved they are in its production.

It's easy to see why leaders think they can't take a day off. Without their supervision or direct involvement, nothing (or nothing of value, anyway) will get done! The big hurtle for owners is to recognize that this is a bias - and then to let go of it. If they hire employees who are qualified and committed, they'll have folks who can handle particular jobs - and do them better.

What Really Matters? Results

But will they do their jobs the leader's way? That's a significant stumbling block for many owners. In Forbes, serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist John Greathouse describes founder's syndrome as a "my way or the highway" approach to business. This is a fine mindset if we're talking about a manufacturing line. Workers have to do the same things in the same ways to ensure optimal results.

In knowledge work, though, there is a multitude of different ways to achieve a given objective. It is the results that matter. Leaders need to provide clarity around the desired result - and then get out of the way so their people can achieve it in whatever manner works most efficiently and effectively for them.

Delegate - Don't Abdicate

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the micromanaging control-freaks who don't want to delegate even the smallest tasks are people who want to abdicate responsibilities, to hand them off to someone else as quickly as possible. This can cause as many problems as failing to delegate at all. As with anything in life or business, leaders need to find the right balance.

How? In 5 Steps to Expert, Paul Schempp posits that there are five steps along the journey from beginner to elite performer: beginner, capable, competent, proficient, and expert. One of the first questions a leader has to ask is: to whom am I giving this task/responsibility?

If delegating to a beginner, for example, leaders are essentially delegating and coaching at the same time. They don't simply give it to the beginner and assume it's going to be done the right way without support. As the individual grows, their capabilities evolve - but, initially, leaders need to check in frequently.

Delegating to someone who is competent increases the leaders' confidence and reduces that frequency with which they follow up. As people go up the expert "ladder," so to speak, the leaders' role becomes much less pronounced. Essentially, they're delegating and "forgetting" because their proficient and expert people are going to achieve the results they need. (One never completely forgets, as accountability will continue with the leader. Only the frequency and nature of follow-up changes.)

Becoming an Expert Delegator

Knowing when to let go of responsibility, and to whom, is ultimately a series of questions:

  • To whom am I going to delegate this task?
  • Where are they in their development?
  • Where is my comfort level with their ability?
  • How clear am I, or will I be, in providing direction?

It's well worth finding the answers; it will enable leaders to take advantage of the perspectives, skills, and competencies they need to grow their organizations - and maybe even take a day, or two, off once in a while.


Larry Hart

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