Hands Off

I once initiated a new intern by fire, teaching him about delegation during his first stint as a leader.

I wanted him to build a pallet wall, the backdrop for a future art commission. Told him it would be a good way to get some skin in the game AND teach him about delegating.  I instructed him to delegate as much work as possible––he would do as little of hand’s on work as he could but also he should be as present with his team as much as possible. I wanted to burn out any tendency from his young imagination to micromanage people.

Though the task took him two months longer than I expected, he learned from the start to manage volunteers, when to let them flounder, and when simply to get the project done yourself.

This, to me, is the first test of a leader: can they simultaneously orchestrate, inspire, AND know when to engage and disengage. You can teach this skill, but for some it’s just there as raw talent in their young sensibilities. Here are some observations:

  • Golden rule: if they can do it 80% as well, delegate it.
  • People need purpose. If you are doing all of the grunt work, you are not leading; you are stealing.
  • A leader only engages in hands on work when they sense the tipping point: from team distress to loss of morale. Leader’s need to train their eye for this crucial turning of morale.
  • A leader can eye the consequence of failure; she knows when failure will serve to inspire and when failure will crush.

First rule of leadership: Don’t do it all. But stay present with your people.

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