Leadership and Delegation: How to Strike a Balance

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Dichotomy of Leadership" by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you nervous about giving your subordinates too much autonomy? Why is delegation important in leadership?

Because a leader can’t do everything herself, the best way to take responsibility for your team’s success is to endow other people with responsibility. However, if you delegate all your responsibilities and assume that someone else is solving every problem, you could be unknowingly steering your team toward disaster. That’s why it’s important to strike a balance between hands-on leadership and delegation.

Here’s how to find the sweet spot between the two.

Don’t Micromanage

Willink and Babin explain that some people misunderstand the concept of radical accountability, using it as an excuse to assume direct responsibility for as many tasks as possible—micromanaging their teams.

(Shortform note: Willink and Babin neglect to ask the question: Why would a leader want to micromanage? Doesn’t micromanagement require more work? In Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday points out that micromanagement feeds your ego. Accomplishing easy, lower-level tasks (that you should really be delegating) makes you feel proud of your skills and lets you show off to others.)

The authors condemn micromanagement primarily because micromanaging your team members discourages them from taking responsibility for the broader mission. If your team members sense that you want to control everything, they’ll do nothing but wait around until you give them specific directions. By disincentivizing them from coming up with creative ideas and getting things done on their own, you stunt their personal growth and hurt the team’s potential for success.

Willink and Babin assert that any excessive reliance on accountability checks from above is a form of micromanagement—for example, a supervisor in a restaurant whose only job is to ensure that food is being prepared correctly would be micromanaging. Such time-intensive micromanagement wastes the time of your upper-level leaders.

Micromanagement in Codependent Relationships

Willink and Babin argue that when you take responsibility for a task through micromanagement, it discourages others from taking responsibility for it. This same dynamic plays out in codependent relationships—as Melody Beattie describes in Codependent No More, codependents often take responsibility for solving their partner’s problems, even if they have to sacrifice their wants and needs to do so. In doing so, codependents harm not only themselves but also their partners by encouraging them to neglect their responsibilities.

In contrast, Beattie asserts that in a healthy relationship, each person prioritizes their wants and needs over their partner’s. Just like on a team of professionals, each partner should refrain from excessive “accountability checks”—avoid obsessing over whether your partner is doing everything “right” and micromanaging their behavior. Instead, trust them enough to let them take care of themselves.

Every Member of Your Team Should Be a Leader

Instead of direct supervision, Willink and Babin suggest a more self-sustaining form of accountability: Every member of your team should feel internally motivated to hold themselves and each other accountable for their work. In other words, on the ideal team, all members would see themselves as a leader and accept radical accountability for the entire team’s mistakes.

How can you make this happen? Willink and Babin argue that the best way to inspire your team members to accept radical accountability is to explain how their jobs contribute to the mission’s success. In most cases, the problem isn’t that your team doesn’t want to try hard to succeed—they simply don’t see how their effort makes a difference to the team’s overall success or failure. If you make it clear how each member of your team supports the mission, you’ll make it easy for them to care about what they’re doing. This is far more effective than watching over their shoulder 24/7.

When You’re Not Managing Enough

At the same time, Willink and Babin argue that failing to keep a close enough eye on those working under you can be just as harmful as micromanagement. Don’t blame your team for doing something wrong if you were too hands-off to realize their mistake—that would be denying radical accountability. Instead, be vaguely aware of everything that’s going on in your team or organization.

(Shortform note: Willink and Babin imply that most undermanagement is due to carelessness, but there are other, stronger forces that discourage leaders from objectively overseeing their team, like motivated blindness. Often, leaders unconsciously turn a blind eye to problems in their organization because they’re secretly hoping that those problems don’t really exist. This is common when evidence that a problem exists isn’t definitive and can be explained away. For example, if a company’s website is unintuitive and ruins many potential sales, but fixing the problem would require a costly design overhaul, the company’s executives might convince themselves that the website is fine, even if experts tell them otherwise.)

Focus on the Big Picture

In discussing leadership and delegation, Willink and Babin do note that some tasks you just can’t delegate. They explain that because leaders don’t have to be focused on any one specific task, they’re uniquely able to manage the big picture. You can see how each of your team members’ tasks impact one another and how well the organization as a whole is accomplishing its mission. This gives you the perspective necessary to make decisions no one else can make. For example, if you’re coaching a basketball team, you may notice that the team is relying too much on one player and decide to make the other players practice without them. The players, focused on playing well, would be too close to the work to notice this issue.(Shortform note: Even if a leader is initially the only one who can make certain big-picture decisions, this can’t last forever: All leaders eventually leave or retire. Therefore, if you’re truly focusing on the big picture and want your organization to continue succeeding for an indefinite future, you must train someone to eventually replace you. In Principles, Ray Dalio offers tips on how to train your replacement: Allow your potential successor to personally observe your leadership while working under you. Then, allow them to take some of your big-picture responsibilities before making the transition official so they can gain experience under your oversight.)

Leadership and Delegation: How to Strike a Balance

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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