Leadership: The Importance of Knowing How to Delegate

by Brett & Kate McKay on February 23, 2010 · 29 comments

in Money & Career

“President Wilson did not have a well-organized secretarial staff. He did far too much of the work himself, studying until late at night papers and documents that he should have largely delegated to some discreet aides. He was, by all odds, the hardest worked man at the Conference; but the failure to delegate more of his work was not due to any inherent distrust he had of men—and certainly not any desire to “run the whole show” himself—but simply to his lack of facility in knowing how to delegate work on a large scale. In execution, we all have a blind spot in some part of our eye. President Wilson’s was in his inability to use men.” Woodrow Wilson as I Know Him, Joseph Patrick Tumulty, 1921

“Mr. Garvin wanted Lloyd George back as Prime Minister. ‘He’s an old man,’ said 72-year-old Mr. Garvin, ‘but he’s a genius.’ And genius is like radium-it is radium always, no matter how little there is of it left…Perhaps Lloyd George can work only six hours a day, but six hours of Lloyd George is worth days of anyone else’s month. In the last war Lloyd George knew had to delegate authority. He cared nothing for the political convictions of the men to whom he delegated it, only how they did their war job. That is what Chamberlain cannot do: delegate authority to able captains.” Life Magazine, 1940

When we think of manly leadership, thoughts of courage, resiliency, boldness and determination come to mind. We think of the man confidently in charge, steering the ship and leading the men.

What we often do not think of is delegation. The ability to wisely and effectively delegate is a quality far more quiet than others, and yet one of the most crucial to a leader’s success. Whether you’re a manager at work, owner of your own business, officer in the military, or simply working on a school project, effective delegation is one of the keys to achieving your goals.

A man who insists on maintaining all control and authority is insecure and actually fails to even meet the definition of a leader. A leader is an executive, a man who manages time, resources, and people. A leader does not do everything himself, rather he marshals all of these elements on the pathway to success.

Why Is Delegating Important?

Delegating frees you up to tackle the truly important aspects of your mission/business/project. Too many leaders, believing only they are able to do things just right, insist on being involved in every single detail of their missions. They believe that this ultra-hands-on approach is good for business because they’re making sure everything gets done just so.

But a leader should be in charge of the overall direction of a team; he is the one looking ahead, steering the course, and making needed corrections to avoid getting off track. But buried in the small details, a man will lose the big picture and fail to see that the mission is falling apart until it is too late.

A good leader isn’t a slave to detail; he uses his valuable time to tackle what’s truly important. And this leads to greater success for him and his organization.

Delegating increases the morale, confidence, and productivity of subordinates. A boss that takes over his subordinates’ responsibilities, constantly looks over their shoulder, and sticks his nose in their every doing, creates very dissatisfied people. They feel like their leader has no confidence in them. Conversely, bosses that give important responsibilities to their employees, along with the freedom to complete the task their way, builds his employees’ innovation, morale, and satisfaction. It is crucial for a leader to show those under him that he trusts them.

“There are those who seem to think a proof of executive ability is to be fussing around all the while. Not so. The real leader flutters not. He knows how to delegate work. He is the one who directs and, therefore, seems least busy of all.” Ohio Education Monthly, 1915

Delegating saves you time. Not only does delegating allow you to concentrate on more important matters, it simply gives you more time in general.

Some leaders don’t believe this. “Why bother spending all that time training someone to do something that I can do myself with less trouble?” they ask. But while it’s true that training someone will involve more time in the short term, it’s an investment in the future that will pay compound interest.

The old adage, “Feed a man a fish, feed him for the day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime,” applies here. You can spend 20 minutes every day doing something your secretary should be doing, and thus spend 86 hours doing that task during the next five years. Or, you can spend 3 hours one day training your secretary to do it, and not have to spend any time on it ever again.

And what’s the point of working your butt off to get to the top if you’re going to be just as busy and harried as you were as a grunt?

Andrew Carnegie was a man who knew how to hustle to get wanted he wanted. But once he found success, he became a master delegator. To a friend who told him that he got to work at 7 in the morning, he said:

“You must be a lazy man if it takes you ten hours to do a day’s work. What I do is get good men and I never give them orders. My directions do not go beyond suggestions. Here in the morning I get reports from them. Within an hour I have disposed of everything, sent out all my suggestions, the day’s work done, and I am ready to go out and enjoy myself.”

How to Delegate Effectively

“Analyze the career of the successful business manager and you will find that he has done two things: by elimination and selection he has fitted competent men to the places at which the work focuses; by system he has so shifted detail to the shoulders of subordinates as still to keep the essential facts under his own hand.” -William A. Field of the Illinois Steel Company, 1919

Pick the best people. The true key to effective delegation begins before you actually do any delegating at all; rather, it starts in the hiring office. Choosing the best people for your team or business is the most paramount part of effective delegation. Everything rests on having people that can successfully carry out the responsibilities you delegate just as well as could do yourself. Pick people who are creative and self-motivated enough to work without you constantly looking over their shoulder and giving instruction.

Delegate in a way that people will willingly accept the assignment. When you delegate a task to someone, that person will greet the task with one of two responses: resentment or pride. To ensure it’s the latter, never delegate responsibilities that everyone knows you should specifically be doing. You delegate tasks when there are more important things that you personally need to attend to, not when you simply find a task unpleasant. My personal rule is never to delegate things that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself if I could.

When you delegate a task, tell the person why you chose them-why you think their particular talents are well-suited for the project. Compliments go a long way, and will give the person a sense of being needed and a sense of purpose.

Also, don’t play favorites when delegating responsibilities-doling out tasks based not on talent but on who you like. Not only will this create resentment among your team members, not picking the best person for the job simply handicaps your project before it even begins.

Have consistent standards. Leaders who complain that their subordinates don’t have the ability to tackle responsibilities competently are sometimes to blame themselves. They have not given their people clear guidance on what is expected of them. These leaders do not know themselves what they want and yet are angry when the result of a subordinate’s work is not up to par. They know what they don’t like, but can’t articulate what they do want. Developing Executive Ability, a book from 1919, sums this point up well and adds other invaluable advice:

“Let us analyze this complaint which has been voiced in one form or another by many executives—the detailed and reiterated directions these secretaries require, their lack of insight into the day’s work. It is granted that no brief could be maintained for all private secretaries; their ranks have been invaded by the incompetent and all are human. But as a rule the failure to get things done as the executive wants them is because he does not know himself what he wants, consistently. It is the lack of system, of standards, which is really to blame for the tangle, since the whim of the moment, and not a clear-cut standard, determines whether the typing or the choice of letterhead is to please him.

In order to satisfy the unsystematic man the secretary must be a mind reader…

A man’s efficiency is best developed by giving him responsibility with a clear understanding of that which is expected. Gradually increase the responsibility, always extending a guiding and helpful hand where needed. Give him all information necessary bearing on his work, encourage him to discuss troublesome matters with you or his next superior in order that errors may not occur for fear of exposing an apparent lack of knowledge. Remarkable results along this line can thus be obtained. We, as individuals, have but a slight idea of our capacity, and we realize possibilities only as we are put to the test. No greater encouragement can be given. It assumes a confidence that is appreciated. A man will strive his utmost before admitting failure. Responsibility causes a man to plan and think. When he begins to think, he at once becomes valuable; he feels he is a part of the company and that its interests are his interests. New possibilities that had been lying dormant are realized. New thoughts are aroused in rapid succession. The new opportunities act as a stimulant toward accomplishment.”

Give ample freedom for the subordinate to complete the task. Once you delegate a responsibility, you are placing your trust in that subordinate to carry out the task. Constantly jumping back in to check on how things are going will show your subordinate that you do not really trust them, and thus will actually erode their morale and impede their productivity, creativity and success. Give the person room to be able to successfully complete their assignment, and remember, while there is an agreed upon goal, they don’t have to get there exactly how you would get there. Let them do things in their own way.

Follow-up. Giving ample freedom doesn’t mean you never check in at all. Periodically follow-up with the person, not necessarily to stick your nose in what they’re doing, but to see if they have any questions or concerns that need to be addressed.

Share in rewards and give credit and praise. When you ask others to take on responsibilities, you cannot ask them only to share in the risk and drudgery, and not the rewards and glory. When a project is a success, a leader gives credit where credit is due. And he treats his subordinates as true partners, listening to their feedback and respecting their ideas and opinions. A great leader understands that the man on the ground often has the best insights to offer on what is really going on and needs to be done.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dennard February 23, 2010 at 11:51 pm

I have learned the art of delegation as a lay leader in my church. I’m one of the usher captains and have too many people and things to keep up with to be able to do everything well on my own. Thumbs up for this article, Brett & Kate.

2 Sunil Setlur February 24, 2010 at 12:27 am

Delegation is surprisingly hard to do- especially when you are going to be held accountable for the output of the person you have delegated to. While I have the gumption to delegate, It is an exercise in managing stress!! I do not know how to strike that subtle balance between letting go and keeping it at arms length, while I don’t show it to my subordinates I am on tethers end while waiting for them to turn their portion of the work in… Good article, would love to hear your thoughts on being able to strike the balance…

3 Stephen February 24, 2010 at 1:14 am

I work in an office for a company that has a very strong mentoring focus. One of our philosophies is that you are always training your replacement. I find that the most effective way to delegate is to look at all of the tasks that you have to do on a regular basis. Just take out a sheet of paper and list them all. Don’t put down the dummies – answering my emails, eating my lunch, etc, are not tasks. But if you have to regularly meet with a certain client, or regularly draft a certain report, etc, put them on the list. Then rank everything on the list as “Crucial,” “Critical,” “Important,” “Not Important.” Things that are Crucial and Critical, you should be doing in that order. Important things, you should delegate to one of your workers. Not Important – you should figure out why you’re wasting time on them at all!

4 Brett McKay February 24, 2010 at 2:35 am

@Sunil-

Delegating is definitely difficult. I think what helps with that balance is being a good leader-choosing the right people and giving clear direction. Ask questions to make sure they know what they’re doing. The more competent they are, the less stressed you’ll be. I think it’s difficult when you’re working with a group that you’ll only be together on for one project and you don’t know the people well, and may not have picked them at all, because you haven’t built up that trust. In those cases, you’re right to be somewhat stressed and I feel like it’s okay to do less delegating to make sure the project is a success.

@Stephen-
Your list idea is really excellent. Thanks for sharing.

5 Jonathan February 24, 2010 at 7:37 am

An excellent article. I especially agree with this statement: “My personal rule is never to delegate things that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself if I could.” At work I give myself the most difficult and/or frustrating tasks, so that in the future none of my subordinates can accuse me of slacking off.

As an aside, when I took my first leadership position at my current job, my boss’s constant complaint was that I didn’t delegate enough. I’m a bit of a workhorse, so I figured he was right. Then when I did learn to delegate (according to the standards of the article), I figured out that he was the one with the control problem (inconsistent standards, not giving us time or space to work before asking how we were progressing, etc). Funny how that works out.

6 DJ Wetzel February 24, 2010 at 8:12 am

Great article. I also think this applies very well to a self employed person with few or no employees. In this situation, delegation is synonymous with outsourcing. As a small business owner, or large business owner really, when you come across a task that is either too time consuming or the ROI on your time is simply too low, simply outsource. Most of the above rules apply, except with outsourcing, you can usually get services for a fraction of the cost of hiring an employee, you have the satisfaction of knowing you are probably hiring a professional for that specific task, and you are completely free to go about your other work. I am not a proponent of outsourcing your life (Four Hour Work Week) but proper outsourcing within a business setting can pay huge dividends down the road.

7 Hans Hageman February 24, 2010 at 8:22 am

Really nice post. Spotting talent is an incredibly important skill. Creating a workplace of trust, commitment, and accountability isn’t taught in many places.

8 CB February 24, 2010 at 9:03 am

I agree that this is an extremely important concept for a leader and one that I struggle with fairly consistently. Then again I’m, 26 and have had leadership roles when I was younger but I’m not in one now, aside from being a husband. (Yes that is a very important one and delegating is just as important in a marriage as it is anywhere else. But this article focuses more on workplace leadership.)
Brett, if you have not checked out John C. Maxwell on the subject of leadership, I highly recommend “Leadership 101″. It’s very short but packed with great information. He discusses this topic by explaining the “20/80 Rule”. Simply, 20% of your priorities require 80% of your time. Therefore, the other 80% of your priorities are candidates for outsourcing/delegation. He also uses a grid system for deciding what tasks are most important similar to the system described by Stephen (#3).
One other tidbit from that book that Dennard’s comment reminded me of: Churches or non-profits in general are the place where true leadership is most distinctive. Nothing shows how much influence you have better than getting people who do not have to follow you, to do what you want them to do. You have to do what your boss says unless you want to be fired. You don’t have to do what your pastor says but when you do, you do it because you chosen to submit to that person’s leadership.
Thanks for the blog!

9 Alex February 24, 2010 at 10:18 am

“Never tell a person how to do things. Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their ingenuity.” – Gen. George S Patton

10 Tyler February 24, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Oh Alex…what a GREAT quote! I do think delegating is a critical tool in the success of a leader. Proper delegation includes more than giving out work though. It is a delicate process of selecting the right individual, communicating exactly what you want as an end result and monitoring the progress w/out breaking that trust that you gave them to complete the task.

Sometimes we don’t get to choose the individual, rather they are chosen for us. That presents another possible problem. In this case you need to remember that empowerment is a very powerful tool and most people respond well to it simply because of our needs as humans. Maslow’s Hiearchy of Needs! The need to belong and feel a sense of ownership to the mission is huge and will show in workmanship.

Communication is one of the most important leadership skills, if not the most important. Delegation is communicating to subordinates what you want. Throughout all of the leadership training I’ve received in the Air Force, communication is at the forefront. Most managers are nice, have great planning skills but their communication is lacking and that affects the mission as a whole, in nearly every aspect. Just as stated above, not giving clear cut guidance of a task creates frustration on you as the manager/leader as well as the subordinate. Learn to communicate!

Monitoring the progress properly will maintain the trust you have given your subordinate as well as keep the mission as a whole on track. “Trust but verify.”

Great article…off my soapbox!

11 symplectic February 24, 2010 at 4:49 pm

In the Bible, Moses could not keep the Israelites under control. His father-in-law, Jethro, suggested that he delegate authority to the clan chieftains of the Twelve Tribes. It worked. God taught Moses what to teach the Israelites, but Jethro taught Moses how to lead them.

12 Jason Wilton February 24, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Delegation is great.
Delegation accompanied by leadership is money!

13 Mike Alexander February 24, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Delegation is probably the most abused AND underused method in leadership in today’s Army. Just don’t tell anyone in charge, they’re favorite method is passing the buck. Then when “Junior (based on rank not experience) Leaders” take charge they get upset. Guess what when in charge then be in charge, even if it means handing the reins to someone else.

14 Sarah Joy Albrecht February 25, 2010 at 8:08 pm

Excellent. Bookmarking for future reference.

15 Adam February 26, 2010 at 1:56 am

To flesh out these concepts in striking, practical detail, I recommend the “One Minute Manager” series of books. They’re inexpensive, quick reads backed by years of experience and good track records. Buy them cheaply online or check your library at worldcat.org.

16 Adam February 26, 2010 at 2:06 am

By the way, I have to take issue with that Patton quote. It just doesn’t apply well in all situations. If the person you give a task to has no experience in that area, and you give him no guidance, it’s likely a recipe for disaster: the person may lose confidence since they lack experience and are concerned with giving their boss a successful result, and if the boss is expecting success soon, he will be disappointed as well. Really, I can’t recommend enough the book “Leadership and the One Minute Manager: Increasing effectiveness through situational leadership.” It explains how to diagnose people’s competency, confidence, and commitment, and how to apply four different leadership styles based upon that diagnosis, always working towards the goal of people who can manage themselves in their primary tasks. I think it should be “required” reading for everyone, even people who aren’t leaders, managers, or aren’t in business–as I think “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie also should be.

P.S. These books would be great starting points for some articles on this site or in this series of articles, Brett.

17 Rick March 1, 2010 at 3:29 pm

@Adam, I believe the Patton quote is spot on. After all why would you delegate to someone that, as you say, “has no experience in that area”? In the above article it clearly states, “Pick the best people:The true key to effective delegation begins before you actually do any delegating at all…” If by circumstance you are “forced” to delegate to someone with no experience in that area, then a good leader would take the time to train that person first so future delegating would be most effective. Just saying.

18 chicago fence March 3, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Reminds me of a writer/speaker named John Maxwell…

19 Tyler Logan March 9, 2010 at 3:06 am

Delegation is powerful and needed. I’ve taken a leadership course and one of the things they drilled into us was to delegate when ever necessary – people won’t hate you for it.

20 Scott March 14, 2010 at 3:55 am

One thing about the importance of delegating. If a leader micro manages and oversteps his subordinates (who usually are experts in the area they have been hired for) by not allowing them to handle the task given to them. That leader then brings down that task to his or her level of expertise instead of the subordinate’s expertise. Usually the suboridinate is better at the task that was given them.

In other words a leader must realize that they usually can only become a jack of all trades and master of none. But the subordinate is usually the master of one so the leader must listen and allow that subordinate to do what they have been hired for.

21 Stephen Drummond March 21, 2010 at 11:49 am

My best lesson on delegation was when I was 13, and I was elected patrol leader for the first time. On a camping trip I was trying to do all of the camp chores myself, so my scoutmaster threatened to tie me to a tree if I did not start delegating. Then I would be forced to delegate everything.

22 Seth March 25, 2010 at 5:45 am

Sunil is right: Delegating is difficult. You must delegate to the right people; to those who demonstrate dedication and also ambition. I have been lucky to have a great team of employees who have both traits, and now they do half my work for me. It took a great deal of work, and believe me, I suffered through their innocent mistakes. But now, our contract renewals run like clockwork, and everyone benefits. This is a great article, so thank you, Brett and Kay.

23 Seth March 25, 2010 at 5:51 am

And Tyler’s comment on communication is key. A good leader should communicate expectations, goals, benchmarks, deadlines, etc. Business IS communication. You don’t pass the buck. As Truman had that little sign on his desk: The Buck Stops Here. As delegator, you take responsibility for those you delegate. If they make a mistake, the mistake is yours, so eat it up. Best be open, honest, and very clear, or your reputation (or job) is on the line.

24 Daive Moraleda May 9, 2010 at 1:53 am

Delegation is about building trust and good relationship to your people, co-workers to attain a clear-cut objectives. Delegation can be gauge only if the objectives are attained, no matter how efficient and effectively done – the bottomline is the output and end-results of work-done. Believed in your people whom who have “delegated” for their free and innovations can achieved the goals indifferent from your own perspective.

25 Kyle July 26, 2010 at 9:11 pm

I love this post and leadership/team building stuff like this. It’s a great post.

Something I believe could be added is that sometimes a leader isn’t able to pick the “best people” for the jobs. As a leader you should delegate to the strengths of the people you have. You can’t give a task to someone if they don’t know how to complete it. That only takes your time and theirs. Instead, find what things would be appropriate for the individual and assign them it. They (and you) will be much more effective and a lot happier. If you really aren’t able to give a job that plays to the individual’s strength, find a way to use them, coach them, or team them up with someone so that the task is completed and they can achieve it on their own.

26 Bob April 18, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Delegation is probably one of the hardest and possibly most frustrating things to learn, but it’s also one of the most worthwhile mastering. I never thought about the resentment/proud issue, and after reading your article, I wonder how I could ever miss it…

27 Chomz April 26, 2013 at 12:05 am

But the main important thing is…. when nobody can be relied on. Tried to delegate several tasks to my staff. One keep on his own track on his own way of working apart of my directions while the other one keep asking what to do and keep whining about the customer’s attitudes and so on.
Another problems are: one is a best friend kinda family for years, one is my own husband.
They both are not novice or noobs.
But seems i have to finish all the tasks by myself every once and then.
Tried to give training several times and show how to do the tasks, but still… such big sighs.
I ended up micro-managing which i really hate to do since i myself already have several duties to settle…

28 Matt Hoyle March 17, 2014 at 12:19 pm

I think for many of us, the act of delegating isn’t what’s difficult–it’s learning to trust and empower others to do the job. If you’re constantly fearful of how they’re going to do, you truly haven’t delegated the responsibility to them. You have to give them the specifics and the desired outcome, and then encourage them to move forward. Will they make mistakes? Probably…but that’s just part of the process. (And how we all learn and grow into mature professionals.)

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