Why are senior leaders to twitchy about delegating responsibility without corresponding authority? Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert suggests that this counterproductive behaviour comes from executives’ nightmares more than it does from any rational position.
It’s difficult being a moderate in America. Whether a social, political, or philosophical moderate, everyone that lives decidedly away from the mid-point of any given spectrum (that is, decidedly right-wing or left-) perceives the moderate as being firmly ‘in the other side’s camp’ (and, therefore, an adversary). In reality, taking a neutral position in the struggle between two emotionally-charged groups makes a moderate both sympathetic towards each faction’s good arguments and equally condemnatory towards their silliness. You’d think that being able to work effectively with both sides might be appreciated, but it isn’t. A balanced view makes you doubly damned: praising one side’s good works gets you vilified by the other.
This isn’t just a political allegiance problem. It manifests in the workplace in all sorts of controversial subjects: office hours versus flex-time; job qualification by degrees or certifications; merely offensive or downright obscene executive compensation packages. Pretty much any subject that can have more than one ‘right’ answer divides people up into competing camps of poo-flinging howler monkeys. Trying to stake out a reasonable moderate position gets a person metaphorically tarred and feathered… unless the conflict is tarring versus feathering.
One of the nastiest unnecessary arguments that I’ve experienced in the private sector concerns how much authority a project coordinator, team leader, or manager should have over the people under him or her. I’ve found that some people lose their bloody minds over the subject, as if such a simple problem could only be solved with a holy war. As in most things, I have a general rule regarding the investment of power: no responsibility without commensurate authority. I submit that this represents a logically-sliding scale – the greater the price that I’ll be expected to pay for my team’s failure, the more that I’ll require sufficient power to exert my will over my team members in order to ensure that our team doesn’t fail. Conversely, if there are few or no consequences to failure (as is common in most large companies), then I’m perfectly comfortable giving people free rein.
Oddly, this has caused a number of my owning executives to lose their professional composure over the years. One Fortune 500 executive chastised me for being ‘too rigid and inflexible’ when I requested that she delegate to me sufficient authority to work on her pet project. She blamed my military history for making me ‘regimented and untrusting’. Three years earlier, a military executive-analogue gave me nearly the exact same admonishment for requesting delegated authority because (he said) I was too ‘wild and unpredictable’. He accused me of being ‘too comfortable pushing the boundaries’ and ‘giving my subordinates too much freedom.’ I find these two mild chastisements to be darned funny, because they both represent the admonisher’s personal perspectives (and fears!) regarding power (and the application thereof). The laissez-faire corporate boss was afraid of being perceived as too heavy-handed, while the old soldier was afraid of unclenching his death-grip on… everything.
In each of these cases, the person taking umbrage with my methodology of applied power in the pursuit of organisational objectives had completely missed the point of my request: I wasn’t asking either of them to change their own preferred leadership approach; rather, I was requesting of each one of them that they invest in me the amount of power that I needed to accomplish the tasks that they’d assigned to me – just enough to get the job done correctly, no more and no less. That those two people would have done things differently than me wasn’t relevant; I’d assessed the risks, worked out what I required, and asked for what I needed.
To be clear, I didn’t really care how either of those executives would have gone about performing the assignment as they would have back when they had held my position. Many years separated our respective experiences, and the totality of circumstances had changed between their time in the pilot’s seat and mine – crap that they had been lucky enough to get away one or more decades ago wouldn’t necessarily fly in the current environment. I also had effectively zero interest in hearing how they in their current role as an executive – replete in all of their terrible glory – would deign to perform my lowly manager’s job. Of course they’d approach things differently than me; everything that an executive does will be different from how a manager might go about it, because an executive warps the working world around them like the metaphorical bowling ball on Einstein’s rubber sheet.
Looking at the problem from a moderate’s perspective, I understand and appreciate the conflicting factors involved:
- If you give a leader too much unchecked power, she might become corrupted by it and use that power to abuse or harm the people subordinate to her. This tendency is inevitable and inescapable, like gravity. Logically, then, the optimal tactic is to delegate to the leader all of the power that they require to ensure compliance – and not one iota more.
- Conversely, if give a leader too little power, the people subject to her power will realize that she’s a paper tiger, and will ignore her. This tendency is every bit as predictable. Logically, then, the optimal tactic is to ensure that the leader has all of the power that they require – and not a single measure less.
You’d think that there would be a scientifically-accurate slide rule for calculating these things… but there isn’t. Power effectiveness is highly dependent on the needs of the moment, and can only be evaluated in terms of cultural context, organisational structure, and perceived risk. There are general rules that pretty much everyone tries to follow: authority means ‘the power to determine, adjudicate, or other wise settle issues of disputes’, and ‘having the power to make and enforce the law’. In a corporate environment, that generally means that the person to whom authority is delegated will get to determine largely on his or her own how that authority is leveraged to compel obedience in others.
That, in turn, may be why so many senior leaders are terrified of delegating authority to their subordinate leaders. Those leaders are not exact clones of the boss, and are therefore going to react differently than the boss would. They think for themselves! Further, the subordinate almost always has less overall experience, whether within the company or in a leadership billet, which means that they’re more likely to make mistakes. Further, the longer that a subordinate leader is left to their own devices, the more that their perspective is going to drift, making the subordinate view of their role different from how their boss views it. So, rather than flow power down to their line-leaders to encourage active management, executives become so averse to potential risk that they try to run everything themselves at their level. That way, the logic goes, everything will be done the right way.
That’s a barmy attitude, of course; a lower-level leader’s entire raison d’être is to take ownership of things that the higher-up leader simply can’t attend to. That’s why they were hired in the first place.
This is where risk and accountability come into play: delegating authority to act to a subordinate leader does not entail delegating responsibility exclusively to them. Any veteran should be able to relate the principle that a commander is ultimately responsible for everything that his or her people do – and that they fail to do. The senior leader is ultimately accountable for teaching, training, mentoring, coaching, observing, and correcting subordinates’ behaviour. This doesn’t mean that the person at the top of the org chart has to take the fall for a lower-level manager’s screw-up; it does, however, mean that the person at the top is required to create the conditions required for their lower-level managers to succeed, and also to take decisive corrective action any time that their lower-level managers fail. Beyond that, they’re to give their subordinates as much power and freedom as they need to creatively attack their responsibilities.
Risk is an inherent element of leadership, from a small Boy Scout Patrol all the way up to the CEO’s office suite at the top of the Global 500.  Good leadership requires the person in charge to be judicious in the application of his or her power: to use it sparingly to the maximum extent practical, but also use it swiftly to correct mistakes. When it’s needed, it has to be employed in sufficient strength to correct whatever is wrong. It’s an art far more than it is a science, and it has to be taught. Learning how to employ power responsibly requires years of guided experience. It’s not something that can be absorbed from an inspiration poster or captured in a pithy slogan.
Along those lines, though, a person can’t be expected to teach what he or she has not been taught. If you’ve never experienced accountable delegated authority – if you don’t know what success looks like – than you can’t be expected to emulate it successfully. That’s as ludicrous as expecting someone to solve a word problem expressed in a language that they don’t speak. Therefore, when people who haven’t been properly prepared are placed into a leadership role, it’s ridiculous to expect them to understand why and how regulated delegation is supposed to function. They just don’t have the vocabulary to understand the problem, so they make leadership decisions with what they know: the rules of the individual contributor.
I understand the concerns that people have over passing down power and authority to act to another. Mistakes will be made. Accidents will happen. Deadlines will get missed and I’ll get yelled at, etc. People are told that they have to delegate, but if they’re burned even once by a failed delegation, they become irrationally averse to ever trusting subordinates on important matters again. They can’t do everything themselves, but don’t dare expose themselves to unnecessary risk. The should-I-or-should’t-I conundrum can become paralyzing. To butcher the bard’s best-known soliloquy:
To delegate, or not to delegate, that is the question:
Whether my boss will understand if I allow my lieutenants to suffer
The slings and arrows of bureaucratic infighting,
Or if my boss prefers that I take on all of my problems myself,
And by opposing ‘end’ them: that is, to make said problems
Disappear; and by waiting a fiscal quarter, to falsely claim that we’d ended
The heartache, and the myriad fiscal shocks
That a corporate department is heir to? ‘Tis a conclusion
Devoutly to be wished. To make our problems seem to go the *#&$ away,
To drop beneath notice, perchance to lose importance; yes, that’s what makes it attractive,
For while the problem is hidden from notice, what screams may come,
When we’re no longer paying attention, and our gormless lieutenants unearth our failures
Hopefully it’ll be too late to screw up our annual bonus payment.
That, I suspect, may be why so many senior leaders seem to be terrified of delegating authority even as they’re quick to assign responsibly. They’re not so much concerned about a subordinate damaging his or her own career; rather, they’re terrified that their subordinate leader will naïvely fail to bury some thorny issue that later casts the entire department in a bad light. A well-meaning team leader will try to fix things, which (in turn) will bring the problem to upper management’s (or to the public’s) attention. If the subordinate exceeded their authority, they can be quietly silenced or disappeared for that sin. Whereas, if the overzealous subordinate was operating according to his or her remit, then their boss can’t help but share in the consequences.
Despite that very real concern, the delegation of authority (in accordance with the assignment of responsibility) is absolutely necessary in order for a large organisation to function. Failure to properly empower and train line-level and mid-level leaders inevitably sets the company up for a crash as surely as failing to perform maintenance on a plane, train, or warship. Everyone on the crew must perform his or her functions correctly, dispassionately, and decisively, or else the entire enterprise risks immolation. Each player is accountable to the whole to do his or her job – and that fact demands that they’re armed with the authority required to perform their job to standards.
Looking at the problem from the middle of the spectrum it doesn’t seem like a particularly controversial position. From the ends of the spectrum, it seems to come across as existentially terrifying. At least, that’s the impression I get from watching some senior leaders who seem like they’d rather let the company fail and the world burn than to give their managers the power that they need in order to get problems sorted.
What’s truly astonishing about all of this debilitating angst is that a person’s ascendance to upper management means that they’re no longer subject to the same cause-and-effect consequences that they lived with as a junior manager. A first-line supervisor who commits a terrible mistake may have her career stalled, or sometimes even ended. A senior manager, director, executive, or other all-powerful being, however, has an astonishingly high chance of completely escaping responsibility for his or her goofs – if their viability dies in one corner office, they almost always reincarnate into a better corner office in another company with a comparable title mere days or weeks later.
Like a bad dream, the problem of senior leaders irrationally refusal to delegate power only starts to make sense when you stop trying to understand the paradox logically. It’s not about rationally solving problems – it’s a primal response to an irrational fear that something bad might happen. In order to grow a leader into a senior, they need an experienced guide to help them make sense out of what they’re experiencing… and to show them the right way to get the results that they want, given the rules inherent to the environment that they’re in. 
 Currently, Wal-Mart of Bentonville, Arkansas, USA with a 2014 market cap of $207,260,000,000.
 Which is where I got the idea for this week’s column in the first place: from the theme of the angel that mentors the protagonist in Richard Matheson’s book rather than from Hamlet’s soliloquy. Although that was fun to mess about with, too.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.