Disciplined Leadership: Painful Delegation

For many leaders, the one thing in shortest supply is time. As a result, they are faced with an ever-challenging set of choices on prioritization. Who or what gets attention first? Sometimes the choices are planned and strategic, but most often they end up practising a form of reactive firefighting, dealing with whatever is placed in front of them. The situation is the same from the CEO level right down to the foreman in the field.

Most leaders want more time, more freedom, and greater focus to deal with tasks in a less reactive and more thoughtful, consistent way. So to help out, I would like to propose a simple but disciplined change in your leadership style that should give you at least an hour a week back for you to use as necessary. But this process begins with two questions and your very honest responses.

1. How much time do you spend (on a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual basis) responding to requests from your people for decisions, resources, or responses that they should be handling for themselves?

2. Are you willing to change your leadership style to change this time impact?

The brutal truth is that a lot of leaders like it when everyone comes to them. What are the payoffs from having all of their employees come to them for every little thing?

• Satisfies control or micromanagement needs/issues
• Feeds need to feel important
• Inability to delegate or empower
• Bolsters ego and need for attention
• Protects their power in the organization

Sometimes leaders were taught to manage this way and simply failed to evolve. But now that they’ve trained their people to be dependent on them, they’re stuck with the frustrating result: lack of time.

The cure for this is a disciplined approach. It must be consistently applied in all situations, even when time, stress, and circumstances are screaming for you to simply give them the answer, resource, or decision. For the rest of eternity, every time someone comes to you with something they need, you will refuse to help them until they answer one of these questions:

1. What do you think we should do in this situation?
2. What would you do if I wasn’t here to give you an answer?

This is a lot harder than it sounds. Most leaders give people what they ask for because it is easier and faster—just one more thing off their plate, one more fire put out. The problem is that it breeds dependency, kills initiative, and slows down the development of others. The hard part is being patient enough and consistent enough to reverse the interaction, and to put the responsibility back on the person asking and break the chain of dependency.

There was a time where I fell victim to this dependent model. I thought dealing with people at an individual level was helpful and it made me feel necessary. Giving people what they wanted appealed to that part of me that wanted to feel needed and important. But in the process, I unconsciously got in the way of their development and minimized their ability to stretch. Interestingly, the greatest impact of my engaging in “painful delegation” was on the growth and bottom line of the business. We doubled in size within three years of my chang my leadership style. I had to get out of the way.

This is not just a challenge at the top tiers of leadership in the construction industry. It is endemic to field leadership, too. Having trained thousands of foremen, I can attest to the fact that they lead and manage with very little delegation, empowerment or inquiry. They have been trained to direct people at a task level. This takes away from their ability to develop others and free themselves from a firefighting mindset. They are very concerned that any effort to breed independent thinking could be a threat to their status, power or employment. These are key themes to discuss with them to help them claw back some of their time and focus daily.

If you have the discipline to do this, and can let go of some of the needs that stand in the way, you will create more empowered and independent employees, greater team productivity, and an hour a week for you personally. If you can send this message down the chain of command in your organization, you will create a culture of responsibility and accountability. No doubt, over time, it will show up on the bottom line in and in the growth of the organization. And that’s just a start.