Delegation (Part 3): The DANGERS

There are many benefits to delegating leadership. However, there are dangers as well. One of the greatest is that of not understanding the difference between delegation and abdication. Delegating leadership must always involve accountability that ensures the faculty or staff member provides reports on milestones of progress to their supervisor and receives meaningful feedback at the same time. Effective delegation means continued engagement by the school leader. Delegation does not mean that the leader washes his or her hands of responsibility. The opposite is true.

Even though a task or responsibility has been delegated, the school leader is still ultimately responsible. Trusted school leaders understand this. It is similar to a football coach. The players may be delegated with carrying out and perhaps even choosing a certain play, but the coach is ultimately responsible if the play does not go well. Barry Silverstein shares this insightful understanding of the significant difference between delegation and abdication:

“You can’t just drop a project on someone’s desk and hope he or she will figure it out — that would be abdicating your responsibility as a manager. Instead, a good manager first gives thought to which tasks are appropriate to delegate to which employees and then diligently follows up to be sure each task has been successfully completed. An effective manager explains the why of the task and establishes goals, due dates, and criteria to measure success. But a manager should not detail the how. It is the employee’s responsibility to take ownership of the job and determine the best way to get it done.” (Best Practices)

Effective delegation means the school leader knows his or her people and provides support structures for their success. Providing support, in turn, builds trust in the supervisor.

Another potential danger is not meeting critical deadlines. For example, international schools identify curriculum needs far in advance to place material orders. It can take six to ten months for materials to arrive due to shipping and customs delays. One year, when I served as the Secondary Principal in an international school, we placed our order in March and did not receive the shipment until June of the following year. It is certainly appropriate to delegate the bulk of the annual curriculum ordering process to a Principal, a Curriculum Coordinator, or a Purchasing Agent – but if there is no monitoring of the task or if clear deadlines are not provided, it could result in a crisis for the school. Thus, when there are critical deadlines, there must be constant monitoring.

The leader must also clearly identify thresholds. Threshold Delegation is defined as delegating leadership in which “the agent can make any decision below a threshold.” Limits of decision-making authority must be set and then fully supported. When a decision is made below the pre-determined threshold and is not publicly supported by the leader, it breaks trust. The practice of delegation only supports the building of trust when the leader authentically values and supports those they supervise – even when they disagree.

Trusted leaders avoid the potential dangers of delegating leadership. They value, empower, and extend trust to others while not abdicating their overall responsibility. The result? A greater level of trust in their leadership.

©Toby A. Travis, Ed.D. All Rights Reserved.

Recommended Reading:

  • Ricardo Alonso and Niko Matouschek, “Relational delegation,” The RAND Journal of Economics 38, no. 4 (2007): 1070-1089.


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