Taking Charge: When NOT to Delegate

Somebody once said, “ You can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate responsibility.”

I think this week’s post kind of speaks to that.


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 authority, it also provides important opportunities for individual exploration and growth.  I expect we can all agree on that.

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

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

  • When you have to deliver bad news or make a change that you 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 also 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 for implementation is pretty much guaranteeing failure. And, it does little for the people charged with carrying it out, apart from adding to their frustration level.

It is the leader’s job to ensure clarity around what is to be achieved 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.

  • 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, Leadership Development, Leadership Values, Organizational Effectiveness

2 responses to “Taking Charge: When NOT to Delegate

  1. Hi Gwyn – The quote, “you can delegate authority but not responsibility” was drilled into us (no pun intended) early on in the Marine Corps. As newly commissioned officers, we were infused with the fact that anything that happened within our scope was ultimately our responsibility.

    After many different roles in the civilian world and in the world in general, I find there are varying degrees of “ultimate responsibility”, which is concerning.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Carol ~ Yes, the term “ultimate responsibility” can be conveniently interpretive for some…and that is concerning. According to somebody (I think it was Reba McIntyre), success in life relies on our having three things, a backbone, a wishbone and a funnybone. I think this is true for successful business leaders too and taking ultimate responsibility for things that go awry within their scope comes under the category of backbone.

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