Leaders have got to get better at delegating.

Intentional leadership takes time, and there are already plenty of demands on the 24 hours we have. Our jobs certainly aren’t getting easier, and I’m betting that most of your day isn’t consumed by core leadership tasks like motivating, developing and mentoring.

So, how much of your job as a leader should you delegate? I would argue almost none of it, since leading more effectively will bring the most benefit to both your people and your organization.

On the other hand, when it comes to management tasks, I think you should delegate virtually everything that someone else can do. This is how I learned it:

Not long after 9-11, I was feeling a little overwhelmed juggling tasks as the commander of a little special operations flying outfit. Not only were we in near constant motion supporting the very young war effort, but we’d also just been told that our unit was closing in six months. The challenge: maintaining combat capability to the last day while working the not-very-responsive personnel management system to find everyone jobs. All while coordinating shut-down activities like asset disposition, facilities turnover, audits, ceremonies…you get the idea.

Trenches One day, I caught my second-in-command re-typing (yes, typing) a flight authorization to correct some minor errors made by one of our young Airmen. I’m afraid I reacted poorly to his justification that he was just showing the troops he wasn’t afraid to get “in the trenches.”

Trenches, hell, get up here and help me lead!!

It was a watershed moment for both of us. When I started delegating tasks to others in the organization, people jumped at the chance to get more engaged. And when we reviewed progress toward the various goals, it was their moment to shine as their extra effort was recognized. It was easy to make it about them, and it made me a better leader because I could focus on my core leadership tasks.

Why aren’t we good at delegating? For most it’s somewhere between “If I want it done right, I’ll have to do it myself” and “I don’t want to admit I need help getting all this stuff done.”

It’s time to put your ego aside and remember that there is usually more than one way to successfully accomplish a task. It isn’t necessarily wrong just because it’s not the way you’d do it. And if you’ve created a culture where it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help, you have bigger problems than being a poor delegator.

In most office settings, everyone has some spare capacity. Use your employees’ spare capacity to free up some bandwidth for you to focus on what’s important as a leader. Not just for your benefit, of course; delegation helps people learn and grow as they take on a greater variety of tasks, and they feel more engaged with each task accomplished.

So how do we become more effective delegators?

Start with a list. Make a list of tasks that can only be done by you – core leadership tasks and those that can’t be done by others because of policy or serious risk of organizational failure (real failure, not the Henny Penny kind). Then make a list of everything else you do; that’s your list of tasks to be delegated.

Choose the right person. But don’t over-think it – just start matching your task list with the most logical people. Think about giving them an input about what they’d like to take on as additional duties. You might be surprised how much more willing they are to give extra effort when you get their buy-in up front. Also, make sure you communicate to others that someone else will be taking over some tasks they’re used to you doing.

Give clear guidance. When delegating, make your expectations clear, and then step back and give them room to succeed. As long as you’ve established clear boundaries, empower them to make decisions at a lower level and let them feel like they’re contributing to the organization in a more meaningful way. It’s okay to check up on them – that’s good management – but don’t micromanage them or you’ll both be worse off than you started.

Re-evaluate your task list in a couple of months to see what needs to be refined. Don’t be afraid to make some tasks rotational or to give additional guidance where needed. Learning to delegate effectively is a process; don’t expect overnight success.

Are routine tasks keeping you from spending your time taking care of your people? What’s keeping you from being a more effective delegator? Give these three ideas a chance to work, and you’ll be surprised how much more time you have to focus on what’s really important.


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