While the concept of delegation is one of the more talked about aspects of effective leadership, it is often misguided and misunderstood.  The word in its noun form means to represent a person or group of people.  Political parties send delegates to their national conventions each election year for the expressed purpose of representing the people of that political party from a particular area of the country.  As I witness the behavior of many of our delegates I am not always proud of their behavior.  You say that I should not pass judgment?  You say that what they do is their business, and theirs alone?  Not when they go as my delegate it’s not!  When they accepted the privilege of being a delegate they also accepted the responsibility to act on my behalf, and if their behavior is not in keeping with my objectives and expectations, they have failed and should be held accountable.  The same principle can and should be applied to any elected official in a representative government like ours.  Sounds like a tall order?  It is.  It comes with the job.  Somehow we have lost sight of the significance of this since the founding of our great democracy.  We often hear the mantra “it is not right to hold these people to a higher standard.  After all, they are only human.”  The fundamental problem with this argument is that it ignores the fact that they are representing the collective we, and that collective we carries with it a vast spectrum of values, behaviors and principles.

As an example, is it OK for an elected official to be a cocaine user and carouse with prostitutes?  I don’t think so for a couple reasons.  First, both of these activities are illegal, and secondly neither of them would represent behavior consistent with the collective we.  However, the people of our Nation’s Capital told us it was OK when they reelected Marion Barry as the Mayor of Washington D.C.  In this case many would argue that to expect a different outcome would be to hold Marion Barry to a higher standard.  After all, many people use cocaine, and carouse with prostitutes.  While this statement is true, I hold out hope that such behavior is not representative of the majority.  Said differently, I do not judge Marion Barry as a person, I judge him as an elected official, and a representative for the people of Washington D.C.  They have delegated the responsibility of governing that city to him.  That makes him responsible to govern that city according to the way they would have it run, including the desire for the people of that city to be law abiding.  He has failed, and should be held accountable.

But he is not the only one who has failed.  The people who elected him have also failed.  They failed by delegating responsibility to a person who was either unwilling or incapable of carrying out that responsibility effectively.  This problem exists in earnest in the business world.  All too frequently leaders fail by delegating responsibility for a task to individuals either unprepared, or unwilling to fulfill the task to the expectation of that leader.  This can occur for any number of the following reasons.

The Mismatch

In the early eighties Hersey and Blanchard developed a leadership concept called Situational Leadership.  In my opinion, this has been one of the most provocative and practical works on the subject to-date.[1] Or, as one of my colleagues used to say, “You can’t expect a duck to do brain surgery.”

Poor Direction

Many years ago there was a man named Moses.  Moses had a somewhat unique relationship with his Boss.  In fact, in many ways his Boss followed a similar series of steps in helping to develop Moses as an effective follower, and an effective leader.  Some phases along the way took longer than others.  The Tell and Sell modes went rather quickly, but not without their share of humorous and sometimes miraculous events.  The Participate mode seemed to take the longest.  During that period Moses and his team wandered aimlessly for what seemed like 40 years.  In fact, on the surface it might look like Moses’ Boss was not providing sufficient direction.  However, Moses had a subordinate whose name was Joshua.  Josh was also moving along the maturity curve.  In fact, some felt he reached the highest level of maturity quicker than old Moses.  The reason for this thinking was that it wasn’t until Moses retired and Josh took over that the team reached their goal.  Even when Josh took over, however, he still needed a very clear direction and sense of purpose from the Boss.  Without it, he may have never made it into the Promised Land!

Employees with the highest level of maturity in task will be less effective with poor direction.  This is probably one of the most common reasons delegation fails, and the reason is pretty simple.  Before a leader can provide clear purpose and direction they themselves must know what it is.  At best that requires vision, a sense of purpose, and the ability to communicate it in such a way that the vision becomes shared.  At the very least it requires that the leader understand the direction that has been established for them, and the ability to communicate it clearly.  I can think of countless times in my career where I have had managers who gave only vague direction, if any at all.  Very early in my career I thought that I was just dense, and because of my lack of experience and knowledge of the subject I was having difficulty understanding the direction.  I know, however, that I am educable; I have a couple of degrees to prove it.  And because I have always been the kind of person who does not stop asking questions until I “get it”, I soon found out that my boss often did not have a clue as to what he or she wanted me to do.  In some cases I am convinced they were hoping I would figure it out for them along the way.  Sound familiar?  Unfortunately many people go on thinking the problem in this case is with the employee.  That is tragic for the organization and the employee.  A good leader never underestimates the importance of setting a clear and positive direction.  It takes probing, much introspection, thought, and courage.  But the benefits can be immeasurable.

Your License Has Been Revoked

Much has been written on the topic of empowerment.  I will only touch on it briefly.  Let’s go back to the example of our new driver.  He has been trained, indoctrinated and given direction.   He is ready to go.  Now is not the time to revoke his driver’s license.  This is the first of two common mistakes leaders make when trying to empower their followers.  Put simply, they lose courage and conviction.   They have completed all of the prerequisite training and direction setting.  They have established the appropriate guidelines and roles.  The subject is ready and willing to “take the hill”.  Then, at the last minute the leader says, “Wait, I better check your work one more time.  I better have someone else take a look at what you want to do here”.  There is nothing quite as demoralizing to a self-determined follower than to have the rug pulled out from under them just as they are about to do something good and productive.  At best, it gives them a confusing message regarding what empowerment means.  At worst it makes you look like a weak leader, or makes them question their ability to accept empowerment.

The second common mistake made by leaders regarding empowerment deals with providing false empowerment.  This is when little or no direction is provided, guidelines are not established and roles are undefined.  During the height of the empowerment craze, I was the CFO for a division of a fortune 100 corporation.  It was at a time when the industry was seeing intense price competition for high-end mainframe computers.  In an attempt to respond to this competition the CEO of the company decided to move the decision making for pricing as close to the customer as possible.  Even though these were multimillion-dollar products, I generally agreed with his decision.  However, there was one major flaw with this approach.  We did not yet have the tools to understand the implications of our pricing decisions on a customer-by-customer basis.  For some of my contemporaries this did not pose a problem, because they were unable to recognize the problems a bad decision could cause.  Ignorance is bliss.  Because of my prior experience, I was not only aware of the obvious financial ramifications of pricing a $20 million product at a loss, but I was also keenly aware of the market turmoil I could create by inconsistently pricing these products among various customers across the nation.  Suppose I sold the product to company A for $17 million, and it was the only one they ever purchased from us.  By contrast, suppose one of my colleagues sold three units to one of our most loyal customers for $18 million each.  What kind of implications do you think that might have once word of this kind of disparity got out?  To make matters worse, at the time, the industry consultant, Gartner Group, was frequently having round-table discussions with many of our customers, offering them the opportunity to share what kind of deals they were getting with us.  In summary, we were told that we were being empowered, but we were not given enough information or tools to allow us to make good decisions or do the task effectively.  In a discussion with one of the senior financial executives at the time I tried to make this point by explaining to him that you cannot empower a duck to do brain surgery.

If we look at all the reasons delegation can fail we can see why so many managers are unwilling to delegate things of importance to their subordinates. It can be risky, but it is absolutely essential to being an effective leader.  To minimize the risk and maximize the benefit follow these simple steps.

  1. Take an inventory of the individual to ensure his or her maturity level in this particular task warrants delegation.  Be sure not to confuse his or her overall maturity level with task maturity.
  2. If his maturity level is not yet there, move him along the maturity curve until he is ready participating with him.
  3. If he is ready for delegation, make sure to provide the direction, role clarification, encouragement and tools to help him succeed.
  4. Get out of his way and ensure proper accountability.

© Mark P. Loschiavo


[1] The basic premise that I gleaned from Hersey and Blanchard’s work is that each individual is at a different level of maturity in a given task at any point in time.  The leadership style must meet that individual where they are, with the goal of moving them to a higher task maturity level.

Let’s look at the example of teaching someone to drive a car.  For those of you who have either taught or been taught to drive, you will remember that the process goes something like this.  In the first session you tell them everything; where to place their hands on the wheel, when to shift into which gear, when and how to turn the wheel, and when to use the brake.  Step by step, you take them through the drive.  Hersey and Blanchard call this the “tell” mode.  Depending on how quickly they master the most basic functions associated with driving the car, you move into the next phase.  In this phase you will spend less time on the mechanics of driving and more time trying to convince them of the need for driving defensively, and the benefits of obeying the traffic laws.  This is referred to as the “sell” mode.  Once you feel confident that they are on board with at least most of these items, you may actually enter into a phase where you have the courage to let them drive the car with you acting more as their passenger, and less as their teacher.  In this phase you try to keep your opinions to yourself unless asked for, or in the case of imminent danger of life and limb. In this phase you might remain only as an observer until the driver is confronted with a new experience and needs some additional guidance (like when merging onto the interstate).  This phase is called the “participate” mode.  If you have survived up to this point you are ready to move into the delegate mode.  That’s when you are willing to hand your son or daughter the car keys, tell them you would like them to go to the store to pick up some milk, fill the tank up with gas, and be home before either the milk sours or dark—whichever comes first.  In this mode you spend half of your time providing direction, and half of your time in prayer over whether you were successful in matching the maturity level with the level of responsibility.  While this example has little to do with the business world, I hope it amplifies the need for a match between the level of delegation and task maturity of the individual you are leading.

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