Delegation is a coin with two sides. One is the orchestra director who delegates tasks like a performance of Tchaikovsky, coordinating and synchronizing actions with total and absolute harmony. The other is the supervisor wringing their hands at their desk, completely overwhelmed with the multitude of tasks on their plate.

“I’m the only one who can do this right.” “It takes to long to teach someone else to do this.” “I just don’t have anyone capable of doing this task.”

The excuses just roll off the tongue. We’ve all heard them. And we all know the outcome. Either delegation doesn’t happen, and the organization fails, or it happens too late, the magnitude of the added workload is unmanageable, performance suffers, and the organization fails. The end result is always the same.

THE GOLDEN RULES For Delegating

In a 2019 Forbes article, leadership consultant Gabriel Tupula wrote at length about the challenges and opportunities of delegation. The hardest part of delegating, Tupula noted, was “letting go of your ego and delegating work to your capable team.” You’re a high-potential performer, so it’s too easy to talk yourself out of delegating a task when you shouldn’t. However, if you’ve built a team able to meet your expectations, then it comes down to “three simple rules.”

1. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

As a leader, there’s a very good chance that you know exactly how to do what needs to be done. At some point in your career, you learned, grew, and developed. Give someone else the chance now. It might not get done as quickly or be right the first time, but that’s how we develop our subordinates, how we build the bench.

2. If something is on your to-do list for too long, delegate.

We all get busy, and few people get as busy as the leader. Understand that when a task lands in your lap. Don’t allow such tasks to grow mold waiting for action. If you see a task that you already know you won’t get to, then delegate, being sure to allow your subordinate the necessary time to complete it.

3. If you delegate, you should validate.

Delegation is not a fire-and-forget missile. You’d think this would be common sense, but you’d be wrong. An action passed in not an action complete. Follow up, have a plan for assessing progress, and set a timeline for completion.

Tupula’s advice is simple and smart. You can’t—nor should you—do it all, so delegation is non-negotiable for effective leaders. The golden rules are a good starting place for delegation. But the golden rules are just that: a starting point.

THE BIG FIVE Rules of Delegation

Putting delegation to work for you (and your team) requires a steady hand and firm resolve. You’ve cleared the initial hurdle—overcoming your reluctance to delegate—and have a validation plan in place. Now what? You’re about to hand a task over to a subordinate and if they’re as good as you think, there’s going to be some questions. So, before you pull up Outlook and write a lengthy diatribe to delegate the task, don’t. Keep it simple.

The military concept of mission command applies. As much as delegation does to spread the workload, there’s more to the equation than passing the buck. Delegation is about fostering trust between you and your subordinates. When you trust someone with the authority to carry out a task on your behalf, it also empowers them. Put those two together, and you begin to see growth and development. In other words, well-orchestrated delegation is transformative. It takes a good team and makes it better.

1. Set clear priorities.

As you exercise delegation and subordinates take on added responsibilities, you have to establish clear priorities, so your team understands where and when to focus effort. Without clear priorities, work effort (and time) will be wasted. Eliminate any doubt—set them.

2. Lead with what.

General George Patton understood this concept better than most: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” Lead with what and let your subordinates figure out where to go from there.

3. Follow with why.

A common criticism among leaders reluctant to delegate is that people always want to know why a specific task is important. If you can’t explain the why, then you probably shouldn’t be delegating the task. Or you’re not smart enough to ask the question yourself.

4. Communicate clearly.

If you can communicate the first three, then you’re well on your way to successfully delegating a task. In the truest sense of the KISS principle—keep it simple, stupid—don’t complicate things. The more you muddy the waters of a delegated task, the greater the likelihood the end result won’t meet your expectations.

5, Make yourself accessible.

The last step should be the easiest, but for a number of leaders this is a challenge. In addition to setting a validation plan, circulate and check progress. Ask questions. And keep your door open so subordinates can ask questions of you. That’s kind of how effective delegation works.

The truth is that delegation doesn’t come natural to some people. Ego, the need to control everything, and stubbornness get in the way. But the more you practice it, the better the results. Make it a habit. and it will pay dividends to you, your team, and the organization.

 

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.