By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
You don’t have to dig very deep into most books about management or leadership before you read that to be an effective leader or manager you have to learn how to delegate.
Okay. What could be so difficult about that?
I mean, why would anyone have to struggle to let someone else do some of their work? Delegating makes work easier. Heck, it frees up time for personal as well as professional activities – which is to say, it makes life better. Why would anyone resist that?
And yet we do. Most of us struggle with the process of delegation for one reason or another – adversely affecting our health, personal enjoyment, professional satisfaction and our organization’s overall long-term performance.
Crazy, right? Crazy but true.
In his book The Paradox of Power, prominent sports executive Pat Williams says he discovered four reasons why it was so hard for him to delegate – even when he was putting in 60 and 80 hour weeks of work.
And he also provides four steps to effective delegation.
I think all eight of his observations are helpful in understanding both the challenges and advantages of effective delegation.
Why we don’t delegate
The four reasons Williams says we struggle with delegation are:
1. Insecurity – Here he points squarely to the 800-pound gorilla in the room. “I was afraid that if other people were as good at my job as I was, I might be replaced,” he confesses. But, he adds, “once I started delegating, I learned that there was no need to feel threatened when others succeeded. Their success became my success.”
2. Perfectionism – Williams said he “wanted everything done just right. “I had to learn it’s okay if people don’t do it the same way, or even as well as you do. If they get it done and they learn in the process, then they have been successful.”
3. False pride – “I thought I had to prove myself,” Williams admits. “But a truly strong leader has the clear-eyed humility to know his own limitations, so that he can draw upon the strengths, resources and genius of others,” he adds.
4. Lack of trust – “I had to learn that if I don’t trust people enough to delegate tasks and responsibilities to them, then they haven’t failed – I have,” he says. Usually delegation is a progressive process. We hand off part of a process, check outcomes, praise and correct, and then repeat, gradually expanding the process as success builds upon success.
So much of how we behave as leaders and followers can be driven by pride or fear as we try to build ourselves up or protect ourselves from perceived threats. The effective leader, in contrast, can focus on the mission and bring all available resources – most especially the gifts of other people – to bear on achieving that mission.
How we should delegate
Williams suggests “four simple steps” to become a more effective delegator:
1. Set clear goals and expectations – “People need to know what they are striving for and whether or not they have met (or exceeded) your expectations,” he says. So true. Often by breaking down responsibilities into smaller, easier to measure chunks, we help others in the same way a parent helps a child consume a meal by cutting their food. But don’t make the jobs too small or people will feel like cogs on a gear – and act accordingly.
2. Give people the freedom to act – Williams advises: “Delegate the authority to make decisions. Resist the temptation to interfere. Overrule your people only when absolutely necessary.” Remember the power of questions when it comes to oversight. Ask the person how they think they are doing and why. Don’t make it a police inquiry. But gently probe to determine where they are thriving and where they could use some help. The more trust there is, the better this interaction will go.
3. Motivate and encourage – “Give your people plenty of credit, affirmation and incentive,” Williams says. And he’s right. Studies of the effectiveness of various ways to influence people show that when its clear you care about the other person, they invite you into their life to help shape them. Leadership guru Ken Blanchard says leaders should praise their people even when they are only approximately right. Don’t overdo it with insincere expressions of “awesome” and “brilliant” when the work doesn’t deserve it. But “that’s pretty good” or “you’re really improving” can move mountains.
4. Remember that the buck stops with you – Delegation is not the same as discarding a responsibility. “You must stay on top of things, get regular reports, and hold people accountable,” Williams says. When outlining goals and expectations (see the first step), be sure to outline a system of accountability. How will you be assured oversight: written reports, regular meetings, other? Consider asking your report for their suggestions for keeping you informed. If it’s their idea, chances are best they’ll stick with the process.
What Jesus did
When we look at the leadership of Jesus, we see how he progressively developed his apostles’ attitudes and skills until he could successfully delegate his whole ministry to them.
In the beginning, soon after he selects his apostles, he gives them a lot of very specific directions because that’s what they need to get started – direction. See Matthew 10:5-10 for a vivid description of how he directs their first forays into ministry.
Contrast that with his “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:17-20, when he turns over his ministry to them just before he ascends into heaven.
Also note a key element of true delegation when he tells them: “behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b). And elsewhere, he promises that he will send his Spirit to guide and encourage them (see especially John 14).
Delegation is not just passing off some task on another. Rather, it’s the start of an interaction, a collaboration, where a leader persists in trying to serve both a mission and a follower by engaging the gifts of the follower on behalf of the mission.
Moses struggled too
If delegation is difficult for you, don’t get discouraged. Williams reminds us that Moses had the same problem. If it weren’t for his observant and wise father-in-law Jethro, Moses might have seen his vision of the Promised Land buried in a mire of small disputes and constant bickering.
Check out Exodus 18:13-26 to learn how and why Jethro taught Moses to delegate. You’ll be glad you did.