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You can't delegate leadership

I had a conversation several months ago with a junior leader who had taken on an experienced and senior professional team, and she complained bitterly about team performance, effectiveness, and a growing retention problem after six months in.

She dug in on how no one understood the obvious goals that needed to be achieved and she had no idea how anyone got anything done before she took on the team. She hinted darkly at "consequences" that would need to be put in place.

I asked her a simple question. “How does your team know what you want?”

She looked at me blankly. I tried again.

How does your team know what your vision for the department is?”

With an impatient frown, she listed off the weekly agenda points for her senior staff meeting and the metrics needed. I nodded dutifully and tried again.

And how does that vision of what you see for the organization get to everyone else?” I was leaving room for discovery, still hopeful of a shift.

She drew herself up firmly. “I believe in managing by delegation.” Said with conviction, as if that explained everything.

Going for specifics, I went in again. “Do you have any direct contact with members of the full team? To share the overall approach? Are there any mechanisms when you share ideas with the entire team?

She shook her head and the frown was back. “That is the responsibility of the managers.

And she meant it. Truly.

Even as a part of an organization of several hundred thousand professionals where quarterly informative emails from the president are common, she still didn't recognize this as a leadership tactic, one that she could also use with her team of ~8 directs for a total team of ~25 (and shrinking).

In her mind, she only had to talk to a few people and the information would flow like water through her delineated organization of those who received information directly and then were accountable for its transmission to whoever else was involved.

If not, then it was the flow (managers) that was at fault.

There was no value to an overall team relationship or dynamic involving her, no connection to be forged, just a mechanism of direction that represented the extended reach of her new leadership role. Deliver up, delegate down, and devil take the hindmost.

She’s not alone, even in 2023. So many advancing professionals misapply the roles of responsibility in organizations. And it’s an easy mistake to make if you’re in crisis. (And it seems like we always are!)

Failed leadership engagement is a knee jerk reaction to not do the one thing we know everyone hates, micro-managing. But there’s a lot in between disempowerment and disengagement, and both extremes are equally unhelpful.

As a leader, here’s a simple truth:

You can only delegate goal delivery AFTER you directly provide the service of leadership.

Leadership is a top-all-the-way-down responsibility to set the tone and to communicate the vision of the future that structures and supports all your tactics that will happen with the power of your team’s skills and talents. They only know how to apply them because you paint the vision of what they’re working toward.

Leadership is motivation. Leadership is engagement. Leadership is enlistment. Leadership is establishing a reason why to give a hoot, and to create a shared understanding of the external environment in context. Leadership provides the criteria for desk decisions you have no need to even know about, so that autonomy doesn’t create chaos and instead enables innovation and good stewardship.

Leadership is a service, not a deliverable. Example: Leadership is not design, even designing how an organization works. Leading a team through the process of self/co-design can be a success that strengthens team ownership of outcomes.

Leadership is facilitating the why forward. When the why gives way to what, in the course of goal setting, THEN delegation can begin, along with the connective tissue that maintains shared vision and progress, fostering optimal how discussions to get to best ways to meet today’s questions. Leadership scaffolds those connections until patterns of success and effectiveness create stickiness and habits.

Leadership is not “management”.

Management is a catch-all word describing administering how a function, process or organization operates, including responsible application of direct and indirect resources. It’s HOW, all of it.

Without leadership, “management” is an absolute set up, tied to perpetual incrementalism on targets that have no proven relevance.

It’s also not a lot of fun to do, and for experienced professionals who have learned to value the autonomy and high-caliber participation of a well-led organization, it’s a waste of their talents and they can choose not to allow that.

My poor junior leader of this highly qualified and not very motivated team? Until she realizes that her leadership is the problem, not her “management style”, not much is going to change, except the increase in turnover. She will continue to be surprised and disappointed in her ability to help the organization meet its goals and the quality of the professional relationships she fosters.

What could she (or anyone seeking to course-correct) do?

  1. First, stay authentic to your own personality. Nothing is more cringe-worthy than getting that one wrong. You’re changing tactics, not identities.

  2. Get real about relationships. There is no delegating or managing yet. Engage first. Honesty is a good start. “Hey, I’ve realized that I can share more information about our business environment with the team than I have been. Apologies, and you’ll start receiving some forwarded metric updates I get on a weekly basis. I’ll add in a few words to share how I look at them and what I think they mean. I’m looking forward to your questions!” Show up. Walk around. Be a person. You might even have some amends to make. Do it.

  3. Document and share. You made a decision to delegate a goal? Great. Share that in a way that is accessible to others. This year’s budget was finalized? Great, pull what can be shared and let us all know. Meeting minutes on a shared drive that we can all review. Updated website landing pages. Well-managed Slack channels. Whatever it is, capture your truths in a way that honors them and the process of using them. Daylight on leadership makes it stronger. No shade.

  4. Keep doing it! Leadership is not a one time activity. You are the leader all the time. Your face, your door (open or shut), your attitude, your camera/background, you are the walking embodiment of what we’re supposed to be doing here. You can delegate and cascade the what and how. So you OWN the why, the reason, the purpose, and the motivation for success. That's why you need to communicate openly and often, so your leadership is persistent and consistent, on the way to trustworthy.

What could be keeping you back?

  • Well, the first and most common is imposter syndrome. How can I represent why if I…and fill in the blank with whatever lacking you think you’re facing. Too this, too that, not enough of this, not enough of that. To work through it, stop thinking about what you are and start thinking about what you can do. Instead of asking “how can I be a better leader”, ask “how can I provide better leadership service?” That’s action thinking, a better out than more self-talk. You’ll have a list of ideas in no time, each one getting you out of your ego and into your impact.

  • Another blocker could be truly a lack of information. And no, you don’t have time to go learn it all. So don’t. Ask better questions of the right people. As a new leader, you probably have folks ready to tell you everything that’s wrong. Great! Listen! But make that a holistic activity involving everyone you lead. Lead by demonstrating how to listen to each other well and derive a shared understanding of what needs to change. THEN you can click into leading a prioritized conversation about goals and you’re off to the races with a team co-designing what they need to do to change for the better. Look at you leading!

  • Confidence? Not quite imposter, but just wow, this is heavy. Yes, so take stock. Confidence comes from a sense of readiness, so be your own scout and take inventory. Skills, resources, talents, and heart, what does the team have? What do you bring? How can you engage on that level and lead the team through educating you and each other on strengths and opportunities? And there’s a reason you’re there too. So you can bring that, even if it’s the best vegan chili that anyone’s ever had at a go live potluck.

  • Your own support? Here’s a big one. Yes, you’re a new leader, but that does not mean that your own leader can leave you hanging with a "figure it out"! Keep the quality of your conversations high (Not “what should I do” but “I’ve come up with this approach to address A and B, do you think I’m missing something in this situation?”), and keep confirming targets and criteria for the decisions you need to make. Don’t over-index your support either, your leader AND peer leaders and mentors all keep you strong, and can help balance or confirm input you receive. If your own leader is working this list too (and even if they’re not), look up and around for skip-level mentors to check in with.

Tactics aside, remember that the opportunity to lead others, explicitly or implicitly, temporarily or as a longer term role, is an honor. Your job is to enable the dignity and honor of others as they achieve stated and agreed goals. You don’t delegate it. If you’re lucky, you can share it.

Topics: Leadership, team engagement

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