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The audacity to delegate

John Baldoni
John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and speaker. He writes the "Leadership at Work" column for HarvardBusiness.org, and his most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

It is a leader's responsibility to provide direction. But sometimes leaders need to take direction. Case in point is the advice campaign manager David Plouffe gave to candidate Barack Obama during his senatorial campaign in 2004. "You just have to let go and trust" your people, Plouffe told Obama, as he recounts in his new book. To his credit, the candidate did learn to let go and allow others to manage the campaign while he focused on being the candidate.

Leaders often have a hard time knowing when to let others step forward, but no leader can do everything, nor should she. In the private sector, we often see entrepreneurs get into trouble when they refuse to cede control of the business once it is up and running. Steve Jobs had that problem, and he lost the company to John Sculley in the 1980s. Now in his second stint at Apple, and certainly in the wake of his illness, Jobs has delegated more to others.

Bill Gates is an even better example. He needed Steve Ballmer as his operating officer because Ballmer, now the CEO, had the operational skills that Gates did not have. Eventually this freed Gates to leave Microsoft to work for his foundation.

So when should leaders step back and let others lead? Here are three questions to help you make that decision.

What are you trying to achieve in your leadership role? Leaders must always be looking downfield, scanning for new opportunities and emerging challenges. By focusing too much on the here and now, you end up managing details, but not leading people. Effective administration is fundamental to good order, yes, but a manager who gets so immersed in minutiae is failing to apply her talents to the betterment of the organization.

Is this project the best use of your time? Before you tackle a project, consider whether it merits the investment of your time. Meeting with customers and employees, helping to solve problems, listening to your team, and providing guidance to others is part of what leaders do. Doing jobs that your employees should be doing is not your job. The only caveat comes during crunch times, when it may be appropriate for senior executives to pitch in with the work load to help others meet deadlines and serve customers. Doing it regularly, however, is a sign of dysfunction.

Do you trust others to step forward? In his new book The Audacity to Win, Plouffe quotes senatorial candidate Obama as saying "I think I could probably do every job on the campaign better than the people I'll hire to it. It's hard to give up control when that's all I've known in my political life." Obama then resolved to change his style. Control is essential to leadership, but too much of it demonstrates a profound lack of trust in your followers. Effective leaders, as Obama learned, let their people do their jobs without looking over their shoulders. If you feel that you must micro-manage then two things might be happening: One, you don't have the right people, or two, you do not know how to lead, let alone manage. Trust is essential to leadership.

By stepping back, leaders are not stepping out. They must always remain fully in control of what they are responsible for: decision-making, direction, motivation. Leaders need to engage on those issues that require their direct involvement. Otherwise, they should ease off and let the people they have hired do their jobs.

Handing off therefore builds leadership muscle in others and lets emerging leaders learn gradually how to assert authority. It also demonstrates your self-confidence as a leader, showing that you value input from others. Delegation is the process that builds new leaders -- a result every leader should be concerned about. Until followers have the opportunity to make their own decisions and execute those decisions, they will not know what it takes to lead.

By John Baldoni  |  November 12, 2009; 6:00 AM ET  | Category:  Leadership skills Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Could we have a moratorium on the word "audacity"?

Posted by: wmpowellfan | November 12, 2009 6:44 AM

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