A great leader delegates decision-making
By JASON T. SMITH
Great leaders should make as few decisions as possible but as many as necessary.
As counterintuitive as that sounds, being a leader doesn’t mean calling all the shots all the time.
Founders and business owners, by default, do everything at the beginning. Complex decisions such as deciding on office location sit side-by-side with decisions around recruitment, marketing, pricing, and what kind of biscuits to buy for the tea room. There’s a sense of safety about this arrangement; a feeling of complete control.
But as the business grows, founders and owners must cede control over a range of decisions and trust the team to act in their best interests.
The challenge is three-fold: First, build a team capable of making operational decisions. Second, learn which decisions can be delegated and which cannot. Third, delegate.
None of these steps is easy. It is an iterative process with mistakes to be made and lessons to be learnt.
The catalyst for innovation
Some might argue that this loosening of the reins is bad for business; that effective leaders must be across every detail, consider every opinion and make every decision.
But even the greatest leaders do not have all the answers. As MIT Leadership Centre executive director, Hal Gregersen put it: “Questions are the answer.”
In his book of the same name, Gregersen interviewed over 200 of the world’s most innovative leaders in business, technology, government, and social enterprises.
In doing so, he found that great questions have a catalytic quality — that is, they dissolve barriers to creative thinking and channel the pursuit of solutions into new, accelerated pathways.
Often, the moment they are voiced, they have the paradoxical effect of being utterly surprising, yet instantly obvious.
Gregersen’s research suggests that a leader’s contribution is best made, not in detailed instructions and opinions in response to incessant questions about ‘what to do’, but in the art of asking insightful questions.
One must affirm with colleagues that the problem they are facing is high stakes, help them process the options, then encourage them to make the best decision available.
This may feel alien for both leaders and staff at first.
But given time, this approach has the potential to create confident teams that make daily operational decisions – allowing their leaders to spend more time thinking strategically, rather than choosing between Tim Tams and Monte Carlos.
Empower those closest to the issues
Those who choose not to empower their teams through insightful questions are unwittingly limiting their own business potential.
According to the Harvard Business Review, “By taking the expedient route, you impede direct reports’ development, cheat yourself of access to some potentially fresh and powerful ideas, and place an undue burden on your own shoulders.”
Ultimately, the greater one’s organisational authority, the less their organisational IQ.
Pixar and Disney president, Ed Catmull, praised as one of the most innovative question-ers in business today, notes that isolation at the top of an organisation leads to a ‘dangerous disconnect’ from reality.
The more portfolios and channels of the business there are to be across, the less one can possibly learn about the details within them.
It’s unreasonable to expect the person furthest from the coalface – and arguably the least informed – to impose unilateral decisions on crucial matters such as IT, legal contracts, staff performance, local protocols and performance.
The key is not in having all the answers. It is in making sure that those who know the details are aligned to the company’s mission and core values, have considered all of the options, and are empowered to exercise their best judgement.
If staff are allowed to make more considered decisions, accordingly, their leader must make fewer. It is simple mathematics. And much better business.
Jason T. Smith is the CEO of the Back In Motion Health Group and the author of Outside-in Downside-Up Leadership.