54: Dirty Delegation – Mother of all leadership sins?

Are you a good delegator, or a dirty delegator?
Are you a good delegator, or a dirty delegator?

This is a continuation of my series on my book: The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make. Today I am covering Chapter Six: Dirty Delegation.

In this episode I cover:

  • A great email from a leader from Australia.
  • Overmanaging is one of the great cardinal sins of poor leadership.
  • Nothing frustrates those who work for you more than sloppy delegation with too many strings attached.
  • Delegation should match each worker?s follow-through ability.

It happened again yesterday. (Beware the confessions of a dirty delegator.) I decided that we would run a full-color half-page ad in an upcoming magazine for a special promotion. I called in Ted, my communications director, whose department is responsible for such things, and asked him to go to work on some ideas for me to consider. He went off, charged with a new project for the boss, not knowing that I was about to cut him off at the knees with my next move.

At about the same time I gave Ted this assignment, I met a brand consultant who wanted to do some work for us. His portfolio impressed me, so I told him about the ad project and asked him if they did these kinds of projects. ?Sure, it?s our specialty,? he responded. I asked him to go to work on the ad, ?just for ideas,? and soon received a fax from him with a great concept for the ad.

Guess what came next … Ted called me into his office to show me the ad he had come up with. He had obviously put a great deal of work into the project. He had even gone down to the local library to scan ads in magazines similar to the one we were creating the ad for. ?Ted,? I told him with fear and trembling, ?it?s pretty good, but I have decided to go with the consultant?s concept for the ad.? Hindsight is 20/20, and I realized that he had not even been aware that he was competing with someone else.

How do you think Ted felt? How would you have felt? The issue is not who did the best job on the ad. The issue is that I did not tell Ted that someone else was competing with him for the concept. I gave him the project, and then I took it back from him. And that is what dirty delegation is all about.


Snoopy is lying on top of his famous dog house. He is complaining in a whining puppy voice that everyone demands something from him. He has so much more to do than he can possibly get accomplished. In the final frame of the cartoon, Snoopy sighs, ?I hate being head beagle!? Being head beagle would be a lot easier if we could learn to spread out?the work to other competent workers around us. But most leaders find it hard to let go of their precious respon- sibilities. They overestimate the value of being the top beagle, and they underestimate the value of their fol- lowers. In fact, no leadership problem is a greater challenge than learning the fine art of clean delegation. And few leadership hang-ups create more defeated spirits as in the case I just described.

There are many reasons delegation is hard to do well:

Fear of losing authority. It takes a great deal of faith to have the courage to turn important work over to others. Those who are especially hung up with the old model of control will have a tough time learning how to del- egate cleanly. Dictators never delegate, they just look for the weak-willed person who can implement their every desire.

Fear of work being done poorly. This is the most obvious reason why some leaders just can?t bring themselves to delegate. There is fear that the responsibility will be handled poorly. In some cases such fears are justified?as when a heart surgeon trusts only a few nurses to assist in the stress of intricate bypass surgery. But often there is simply the hang-up of not being willing to allow others to do the work their way. In many cases, how- ever, there is no perfect way to do the job, as long as the job gets done.

Fear of work being done better. On the flip side, some leaders are para- noid about having subordinates show them up and do a better job than?they themselves could have done. This is a sad display of pride that will eventually ruin a leader?s effectiveness. Our goal is to develop new leaders who will eventually replace us (more on that in chapter 9), so we shouldn?t worry about others having skills better than our own. If you honestly believe that the best ideas flow up from below, then you must believe that some of the rank-and-file workers will do some work better than you. A leader should surround himself or herself with specialists who can each do their particular job better than their supervisor.

Unwillingness to take the necessary time. Delegation takes time. Task oriented people just want to get the job done; their impatience precludes waiting on others to do the job. They think, I can do the job better and faster if I do it myself. If I take the time to delegate, I first have to meet with the person and explain what I want. Then I have to wait for them to have the time to do the project … and I have to hope that when I finally get the job back, it will be up to my standards!

Fear of depending on others. This problem comes right on the heels of the impatience just described. It is the issue of leadership independence, which some people find very hard to relinquish. They are so independent and so aggressive that they cannot learn to depend on others in a team environment, in which the whole task is completed when each member ???

The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.? ?Theodore Roosevelt does his or her part.

Lack of leadership training and positive delegation experience. Perhaps for some leaders, they have never been trained in the fine art of delegating. No one has shown them how, no one has ever believed in them enough to delegate to them, so they have learned to work as independents doing their?own work. If this is your experience, then you should begin with small experiments at delegating tasks to others that you would normally handle yourself. Try it, and see how you can multiply your effectiveness!

Fear of losing value in the organization. We all want to feel needed, and one of the problems of good delegation is that there may not be as much for you to do. And for many people, that translates into loss of value. ?If I don?t do it, I am not needed!? It?s simply not true. The value of the leader is to coach and lead, not to micromanage.


As we have seen, some of the greatest lessons of poor leadership come from the ineptitude of communist regimes before the fall of the Iron Curtain. This is particularly true in this issue of delegation. Delegation is about private ownership of one?s work, and in the communist system, there simply was no private ownership. No one took pride in his or her work, and therefore, nothing got accomplished. After seventy years of communism, you find in former communist nations a completely failed infrastructure that is impossible to rebuild. I feel sorry for those millions who are paying the price today for the decades of tyranny that denied men and women the simple freedom to own their work and pursue their passions through private enterprise.

To illustrate the power of personal ownership of private property, take the example of how food was produced in the former Soviet Union. More than 90 percent of farming was done on collective farms, but those farms produced only 10 percent of the food consumed. Crops on the collective farms rotted in the fields, because there was no one to harvest them. One Iowa farmer who owns his own land could outproduce a collective farm that employed hundreds of workers on land many times larger. Why? Pride of ownership and personal control.

Where did the bulk of the Soviet Union?s best food come from? Some, of course, was imported from the West, including yearly doses of wheat from the good old Midwestern farmers of America. But almost half of the fresh food supply for the population came from tiny private plots that citizens were allowed to own. Those little plots rimmed the perimeters of many Russian cities. With every spare minute, private citizens worked those parcels as the only real expression of what they were able to accomplish ??beyond the all-encompassing reach of the government.

In the same way, we must give our workers freedom to own their work, or they will lose the pride of personal accomplishment and their productivity will quickly wane.


Overmanaging is one of the greatest sins of leadership. We must be care- ful not to micromanage people to death. Delegation means giving people the freedom to decide how jobs will be done. Dirty delegation constantly looks over the shoulders of those asked to do the work. It is confining and restricting to the creativity and problem-solving potential that longs to come out of most people. It often results in decisions made behind the backs of those to whom the work was delegated.

?OK, Sam. Here is what I want you to do,? our boss said to my good friend, who was new on the scene in this particular organization. ?You?re bright. Study this problem, and come up with a solution that we can use to fix it.?

That?s all Sam wanted to hear. He was like a hungry dog that had just been tossed a fresh steak. He tackled the assignment with all the gusto you could expect from an eager young recruit. He dug in, turned on, rolled up his sleeves, and went to work. Among the many things running through his mind, Sam wanted to (a) make a great impression by showing his boss that he was even brighter than rumored, and (b) get off to a great start by helping solve a major challenge that had been plaguing us for months. He studied and researched the problem, explored possible options, and over the next months pounded out an impressive report on his keyboard. I recall the final product being close to fifty pages.

Sam had been given a long lead time to complete the project. When it was finally finished, the fateful day came for him to deliver his first work of art to his new boss. With great pride and a sense of ful- fillment he placed the document in the boss?s in-box. And he waited … and waited … and waited. Hearing nothing after several days, he finally got the courage to stop his boss in the hallway and ask him about the report. ?Looks good, Sam,? he said almost off-the-cuff, ?but we?ve decided to take another approach with that project.?

What? Did he hear what he thought he heard? You could hear the air rushing out of his bubble as his ego completely deflated. To say that Sam was crushed, angered, and puzzled would be to put it mildly. How would you have reacted? Can you feel the rage that Sam felt that day? How many mistakes did this?leader make with Sam? I can think of several outrageous ones, includ- ing the following:

Lack of empathy for the enlisted folks. The longer you lead, the less you remember what it was like to follow. For some there may have never been a chance to really feel what followers feel. People who hold great power in organizations usually don?t sense their power?like a skunk that?s immune to his own aroma! Leaders lead … and followers cringe!

Failure to ?give? work to others. This leader never really ?gave? the project to Sam at all. He teased Sam like you would tease a dog with a bone that you have no intention of giving him. He showed a great lack of respect by giving Sam the project and then taking it back without ever bothering to let him know. Any assignment should be given with the authority and freedom to complete the task in whatever way an employee sees fit. And further, follow-up procedures should be implemented out of respect for the dignity of that worker. Any person who puts time and effort into an endeavor would like to hear of the outcome.

Failure to stay in touch. The next classic mistake Sam?s boss made is that he never bothered to check up on how Sam was doing. Had he known how Sam was killing himself to do this project right, he would have seen the sense of ownership that had taken over Sam?s emotions, and he would have been tuned in to the problem that was looming on the horizon.

Short-circuiting the decision-making process. Sam was simply out of any loop in the decision-making process. In fact, once a decision about the project was made, he wasn?t even informed.

But he was not alone, for no communication system was in place for people to know when big decisions were made behind closed doors. We will discuss this further when we talk about communication chaos in chapter 7.

Playing the inner-circle game. Who really made the decision about?scuttling Sam?s project? The boss and his private inner circle of top management. I?ve seen quite a few organizations?even Christian ministries? that pride themselves on running a biblically centered operation while in reality they hold a double standard when it comes to information flow.

They boast equality and transparency in the fellowship of the family of faith, but in fact keep many parts of that family in the dark. I know that certain information must be kept confidential, but that is not the problem here. Sam never got an honest hearing. The boss and his inner circle decided that they knew the answers they wanted before the project came to fruition.

By the way, what do you think this incident did to Sam?s enthusiasm? Yes, it took all the wind out of his sails. He tossed out the respect he had for this leader, and he crawled into a shell that he maintained until the day he resigned not too many years later. From that day on, he decided that his number-one goal in the organization was his own self-preservation? not the good of the whole. He told me, and I quote, ?I will never volun- teer to do a project for him again. Period.?


Delegation is seen throughout the Bible. When I think of delegation in the Bible, I think of the great leader Nehemiah and the thousands of workers to whom he delegated responsibilities as they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. Then there was Aaron, brother of Moses, who was put in charge of the camp while Moses spent extended time in the presence of God on Mount Sinai. Aaron is a good example of delegated responsibility gone bad, for he failed in his duties and Moses came back to a mess. That is the risk we take when we delegate.

In the New Testament we read about the greatest task ever delegated to a group of leaders. Jesus delegated to his disciples the fulfillment of the?Great Commission?spreading the word about God?s love. He prepared them well and then turned them loose. Due to their success, many of you who are reading these words are followers of that message. Notice how Jesus Christ passed on his authority to his disciples:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt. 28:18?20)

Jesus not only gave them an important job to do, he promised to fol- low up on that delegation with his presence: ?Surely I am with you always.? He was going to hold his followers accountable, but he also intended to encourage them along the way. Excellent practice of delegation!

After just three short years of preparation, Jesus was counting on his disciples to fulfill the mandate of his revolution to the ends of the earth. He trusted them so completely that he had no backup plan. Either they would build the church and start a worldwide movement … or it just would not happen. There was no secret division of his enterprise lying behind closed doors that he was waiting to break out at just the opportune moment.

I think the twelve disciples knew that they were it, and that Jesus believed in them so completely that he had no other plan. Thus they gave themselves to the Great Commission with reckless abandon and devotion, even to the point of death. It is amazing what followers will do for the leader who shows this level of faith in them.

In the second generation of Christ?s followers, the apostle Paul stands out as again seeing the importance of delegating. Near the end of his life,?Paul laid out his delegation strategy for completing the task of building the New Testament church. He counted on a young leader named Timothy:

You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Tim. 2:1?2)

Paul is asking those to whom he delegated the task of spreading the gospel to delegate it down the line to a third and fourth layer of individuals. That is good delegation?passing the authority and responsibility throughout the enterprise.


An important principle that many leaders stumble on is the need to recognize that different kinds of followers need different styles of supervision. Once I have delegated a responsibility, I must practice various forms of supervision and accountability according to the condition of the follower.

I can best explain the difference with illustrations of two very different people I delegate work to and how they respond. One is named Andrew, my youngest son. The other is named Joe, and he is decades older and wiser.

Andrew falls on the low end of what I call the delegation continuum (see chart). I have been training him and our other kids on ?KP? in our family. KP stands for ?kitchen police,? and our four children have a rotating system: on certain days of the week each has KP. At least that?s the theory! The responsibilities include such things as setting the table for dinner, clearing the table after dinner, and taking out the garbage. Andrew has very low motivation, interest, or skill for this job, and thus, I have to?constantly hover over him to get him to do it. What teenager loves to help in the kitchen? Not only do I have to constantly remind him to do his work, but I also have to help him and demonstrate how. If I leave him alone, the chances are high that the system will break down. Andrew needs close and constant supervision of a very specific nature. Some people who work with and for you will be in the same category.

Then there is Joe, who has worked for me for more than a year on a very demanding special project for our organization. I live in Denver where our headquarters are, and he lives in California, far away from my daily personal supervision. But that?s no problem, because Joe is the ulti- mate self-directed worker?he gets the job done on autopilot. He never misses deadlines and does fabulous work. What is the difference between Andrew and Joe? Not just age, but motivation, interest, and skill.

This practice of varying your style of supervision according to your followers? follow-through style could be called situational leadership. One of the best books I have read on the fine art of delegating and supervising is Hersey, Blanchard, and Johnson?s Management of Organizational Behavior. They introduce the concept of situational leadership and show that there are four ways of delegating and keeping up with those to whom work has been assigned, based on their maturity and motivation. These four leadership alternatives are delegating, participating, selling, and telling. The greatest mistake we can make in supervising is to treat everyone the same. Hersey and Blanchard describe these four different supervision styles thusly:

Delegating. This is the best kind of supervision for the person who, like Joe, is self-directed and highly skilled at his or her work.

Participating. This is the kind of situation in which the leader is working with the follower. The leader literally shows the follower how to get the job done. When I taught my oldest son how to cut our lawn, the first season we?did it together. Now he can do it totally on his own while I am out of town. I moved with him from the participating to the delegating category.

Selling. Here the people have high skill but low motivation. They will do the job best if you can sell them on doing it. This is something we who work in nonprofit organizations must practice day in and day out.

Telling. This is the approach I take with Andrew and my other children, since they have low interest, low motivation, and low skill in the kitchen. With some people, you must strongly tell them that they must do a job whether they like it or not. This is the lowest form of delegation and should be used as little as possible.


In the 1950s, The Harvard Business Review ran an article about delegation and monkeys, from which the expression arose, ?get that monkey off my back.? In that fascinating account, the writer described a typical scenario that is repeated daily in our office and in organizations around the world. Every time you give a job to someone, picture yourself putting a monkey on his or her back. It is their responsibility to care for and feed that monkey until it?s time to set it free?that is, until the task is completed. It sounds simple, but it?s not. A coworker comes into my office with a problem about?a responsibility that has been delegated to him or her. There seems to be a snag, and the person needs help. Their goal is to get the monkey off his or her back and onto mine. How does the monkey jump on my back? By my saying something like, ?Well, let me give it some thought,? ?I?ll see what I can do,? ?Let me talk to some others about it,? or the worst response, ?I?ll take care of it.? In each case I?ve relieved the person of his or her monkey. I have taken responsibility for its care and feeding.

?If everything seems under control, you are not going fast enough.? ?Mario Andretti

If this process repeats itself several times a day, your back will be over-burdened and the noise unbearable. I ??have a back full of monkeys that are really the responsibilities of other peo- ple. I am happy to have an open-door policy and help colleagues problem solve. But I have an imaginary sign over my doorway as you look out of my office that reads, ?Did they take their monkey with them??

Don?t do other people?s work for them. That is my natural temptation, like when I ask my children to do a job that I would normally do myself. I must cultivate greater independence and responsibility in both of us by giving them a job and allowing them do it. Not long ago I asked my son to wash my car after school. He was looking forward to it, but, to his dis- may, I arrived home that evening with a newly washed vehicle.

?What happened, Daddy?? he asked with great surprise and disap- pointment. I had to confess to him that I was practicing dirty delegation again. I figured it was easier to run it through the car wash on the way home than to have him take an hour and do an inferior job. In that case, I preferred the easier route to setting the monkey free, and simultaneously, didn?t follow through on my request of my son. By not entrusting him, he may have lost trust in me.


This issue of delegation is an issue of respect. With responsibility must come the authority to do a job. I believe in the 80/20 rule of success. Eighty percent of the time I?ll make the right decision, and 20 percent of the time I will make mistakes or not do something as well as it could have been done. I allow my subordinates the freedom of the 80/20 rule as well and give them grace and room to fail.

My rule of thumb is this: He who is asked to do the job plans how it will be done. We can check our workers? progress, but we should not (a) constantly look over their shoulders, (b) tell them how to do their work, (c) reject their work in favor of our ?expert? approach, or (d) reverse their strategy decisions simply for ones we might favor as leaders.

Key Ingredients for Clean Delegation:

  1. Have faith in the one to whom you delegate.
  2. Release the desire to do it ?better? yourself.
  3. Relax from the obsession that it has to be done your way.
  4. Practice patience in the desire to do it faster yourself.
  5. Vision to develop others by delegating.

Guidelines for Clean Delegation:

  1. Choose qualified people.
  2. Exhibit confidence.
  3. Make their duties clear.
  4. Delegate the proper authority.
  5. Do not tell them how to do the work.
  6. Set up accountability points along the way.
  7. Supervise according to their follow-through style.
  8. Give them room to fail occasionally.
  9. Give praise and credit for work well done.