leadership folly: making all the decisions

While its true that leaders are known for the decisions they make, its folly to think that making all the decisions is a mark of great leadership.  Its actually a dis-service to the organization and the leaders who serve with and under you to believe that you must be in on   every decision.

Steven Sample, President of the University of Southern California, writes in his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership of his two general rules for decision making:

1.  Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant.

2.  Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.

His first rule is my interest today.

Leaders can find good reason to send decisions back down to others, not as a matter of shirking responsibility but as a way of developing the organization and the people who serve with them.  The leaders that empower others to make decisions are generally characterized by a strong sense of internal security, clarity regarding the values informing the organizational life, the ability to describe/story these values, communicate trust as the expectation that others will make good decisions, and a delight in seeing others excel and grow.  Why would leaders delight in others making decisions?  Sample gives three reasons:

“Even in small organizations there are compelling reasons why a leader should consistently delegate most decision to selected ones of his lieutenants.  The first has to do with time constraints.  Making a good decision is hard, time-consuming work, and no leader can make many good decisions in a month’s time, much less in a day or a week.  So he needs to carefully reserve for himself only the most important decisions and cheerfully delegate the rest.

A second major factor in favour of delegation is that it helps develop and nurture strong lieutenants.  As we’ll see in a later chapter, a leader can’t expect his lieutenants to grow and grow up unless he gives them the opportunity to make real decisions that will have real consequences for the organization, without their being constantly second-guessed by the leader…

Finally the contrarian leader who is willing to delegate almost all decisions to lieutenants has an opportunity to build a much stronger and more coherent organization than does the leader who tries to make all the decisions himself.  This assertion is very counterintuitive; one would think at first blush that strength and coherence would be on the side of the absolute dictator.  But here’s the key:  the leader who delegates is forced to build coherence by putting together a team of lieutenants who have shared values and common goals.  If he’s successful in this regard, his organization can survive the loss of the leader himself (which will always happen eventually).

By contrast, when a dictatorial leader leaves the scene there is usually no strong and well-knit set of lieutenants to carry the organization forward in a coherent way.  An abrupt ending of years of dictatorial repression usually leads to an eruption of bitter factions and infighting (think of Yugoslavia after Tito’s death).” p. 73-74

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