Taking Charge: When Not to Delegate

In leadership, one of the things we are always being reminded of is the importance of delegation, and with good reason.  It not only ensures an even distribution of work and responsibility, it also provides important opportunities for individual exploration and growth. I expect we all agree on that.

But when is it important not to delegate matters to others?

As leaders, regardless of our level in an organization, there are times when we have to rely on our strength of character to call upon our backbone and take charge.

So here are some situations where I think Delegation is not an option:

  • When we have to deliver bad news or make a change that we know will not be well received.

Let’s face it, everyone likes to be popular but leadership is not about popularity.  It involves making tough decisions, sometimes decisions that affect jobs and the futures of those who do them. It means not only delivering tough messages personally but staying around to respond to difficult questions and participating in the process of making hard and sometimes upsetting transitions.

  • When the objectives of an assignment are unclear or people don’t have the tools they need to get the job done.

Delegating an assignment that is not well thought out or does not include the tools necessary to implement it, is pretty much guaranteeing failure. And, it does little for the people charged with implementation, apart from adding to their frustration level.

It is the leader’s job to ensure clarity around what s/he wants to achieve and to provide the resources necessary to promote success. Turning a concept into an assignment while it is still in its formative stage makes everyone’s job harder.

  • When something goes wrong that affects the entire department or company

So let’s say that things are motoring along nicely in your domain.  People are attending to their responsibilities and you are delegating assignments in accordance with your knowledge of their capabilities. Great.

And then, something goes wrong. Someone makes a big mistake that reverberates beyond your sphere of control, affecting other areas of the organization and its reputation.

While you might have delegated the work assignment, the responsibility for the outcome of it rests with you.  That’s why you get paid the big bucks, as they say. It is your job to find out specifically what went wrong and why.  It is your job to work with the person or people involved in bringing the mistake about and taking whatever corrective action is deemed appropriate. And, you are the one that must be accountable. ‘Nuff said.

Here is an article that illustrates the reactions of a number of senior executives when faced with crises in their organizations. The one that comes prominently to mind for me is Michael McCain. He put himself directly in the line of fire when the plant in Ontario became contaminated with the Listeria bacterium. Of course, I’m not sure what the outcome for Maple Leaf would have been had he not stepped up and taken responsibility for a very grave situation, but my hunch is that the company’s recovery would have been seriously in doubt.

  • When you are trying something new and the risk of failure is high

In any enterprise, innovation is crucial to growth and sustainability.  As such, risk is an inherent part of business life.  If a project being contemplated carries with it a high risk/reward ratio, it also requires full involvement by the leader. To some extent, this will mitigate the risk and send the message that, while you asking others to “go where no man has gone before” you will be right there with them, to share in the glory…or the blame.

People often say that leadership is not for the faint of heart.  I have described only four situations where a leader must stand up and be counted.  There are no doubt countless others.

What comes to mind for you?


Filed under Leadership Values, Leading Change, motivating & Inspiring

13 responses to “Taking Charge: When Not to Delegate

  1. Delegate to the lowest level appropriate for the job at hand. Sometimes, that means you! I also see a distinction between delegating “responsibility” versus delegating “authority”. I often delegate responsibility for tasks, yet rarely delegate authority – I view that I’m accountable for everything in my purview, whether I do it or not.

  2. Gwyn Teatro

    Well said, Joe. I like the distinction you make between ‘responsibility’ and ‘authority’. It is a fine distinction and an important one.

  3. Gwyn, another great post with powerful and actionable guidance. This reminds me of the Coach’s Credo: “When the team succeeds it’s because of the team, and when it fails it’s because I failed as the Coach.”

    I enjoyed this so much as well as the “Lack of Communication You Say” post that I featured them in my “Fresh Voices” post today at: http://artpetty.com/2009/05/12/fresh-voices-perspectives-on-change-communication-and-delegation/

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and wisdom.


  4. Gwyn Teatro

    Wow. Art, Thanks so much for your comments and most especially for featuring my posts in your latest article!

    It’s so exciting and gratifying for me to know that something I have written might just make a difference to someone out there. Your generous support and encouragement is very much appreciated! 🙂

  5. I’ve been thinking through alternative examples and realize that most fit within the 4 you mentioned. Joe’s comment got me thinking however, because I’m not sure how you meaningfully distinguish authority from responsibility. Both need to be delegated, although with limits, for team members to function well independently. I think this is why your post hits such a strong note – sometimes managers first response to complaints is to point at the person responsible, rather than have a buck-stops-here attitude. The team is working as an extension o the manager’s authority and responsibility. Following your guidelines can strengthen resolve and risk taking overall because team members know you have their back.

  6. Gwyn Teatro

    Hi Fred,

    I suspect that the point Joe might be making is that ultimately, accountability for overall performance lies with the leader, regardless of how much s/he chooses to delegate to others. To your point, whether we call it responsibility or authority, it all ends up in the same place in the end..at the feet of the leader.

    Thank you for your comments. They are always most welcome 🙂

  7. Gwyn,

    Great post, chock full of information. I was challenged by the question you pose to your readers at the end of your post.

    A crisis comes to mind as another example of when not to delegate. Look at the active role played by the CEO of Southwest Airlines when the news broke about overlooked airplane repairs; amid scandalous cries about having cozy relationships with area FAA administrators.

    Or, when G.E. missed it’s quarterly earning prediction and Jeff Immelt stood in front of the entire world and took responsibility for the miss; while enduring harsh and unrelenting criticism about his integrity.

    I would compare those two leaders to the behavior of Ken Lewis of BOA, and John Thain of Merrill Lynch during the “bonus” crisis; or any one of a number of Investment Bank CEOs as their empire was crumbling. How about Alan Schwartz from Bear Sterns telling all who would listen that there was plenty of cash on hand. He didn’t delegate, he just lost his “True North”.

    Leadership starts with integrity, and a compass pointing “True North”. Leaders know the right thing to do. It’s great to work with ones that do the right thing.

  8. Gwyn Teatro

    Yes, and it is at times of crisis when the true nature of the leader tends to emerge. The examples you give provide an excellent contrast in behaviour.

    That reminded me of the US Airways plane crash into the Hudson River. Can you imagine the outcome if Captain Sullenberger, at the time of crisis, delegated the task of bringing the plane to safety to his co-pilot? It could have turned out quite differently.

    Thanks for coming by, Larry. Your thoughtful comments are always appreciated. 🙂

  9. Hey very nice blog!!….I’m an instant fan, I have bookmarked you and I’ll be checking back on a regular….See ya

    I’m Out! 🙂

  10. Pingback: Summer Reading: 10 Leadership Blog Posts I Like | You’re Not the Boss of Me

  11. How does this translate to a matrix organization where tasks are delegated to elsewhere in the organization?

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi James ~ There is no doubt that delegation (or not) in a matrix organization adds complexity to the process. This kind of organization, as I understand it, while having many benefits often experiences conflicting loyalties, delays in decision-making and possibly “too many cooks in the kitchen”. I don’t have a defined answer for your question. I expect you might have your own ideas. But, when it comes to deciding what NOT to delegate, when there are multiple reporting relationships, it would behoove the leaders of each functional group and each project or product group to communicate clearly and regularly with each other. The bottom line is that delegating a task or project to others because it is distasteful, unclear or risks failure is an abdication of leadership responsibility regardless of how your company is organized. Thanks for asking the question. Anyone else have a view to share?

  12. I love reading a post that will make men and women think.
    Also, thank you for permitting me to comment!

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