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Why Can’t Leaders Delegate More Successfully?

Why Can’t Leaders Delegate More Successfully?

It is almost certain that, at some time or another, you will have had to ask others for assistance. This could vary from them taking messages or phone calls to deputizing at a meeting, or even to handling quite a large or complex project for you. By asking someone to help you, you’ve engaged in the process of delegation (at least to some extent). So, if you can delegate (even in a minor way) on occasions such as these, or when you go on vacation or are away from work for any reason, why can’t leaders in general seem to do it more often that the research appears to indicate?

There are many reasons why leaders do not delegate, including things like:

  • Enjoying maintaining the impression of being overworked
  • Believing they are indispensable
  • Having a lack of trust in others
  • Having a fear of losing their job or being replaced
  • Having a fear of criticism by others
  • Having a fear of losing face
  • Being concerned at overloading other people

5 steps to successful delegation

However, the main reason that leaders cite much more commonly than any other is that is takes a lot longer to delegate than to perform a task or project him or herself (mainly because of higher levels of familiarity with what is required).  Although this may well be true in some cases and in the short term, it is not true for all tasks (some people will be able to perform at equivalent or even better levels due to past experience or ability) and less and less true in the medium to long term (as people are given the chance to practice). For these reasons, delegation can and should be done selectively, on a task by task basis, and by carefully selecting the individual that is most likely to be able to perform at a reasonable level. But there’s also more to be done if we want to delegate more. Every leader needs a delegation process and the simple 5 step one below is one example of this.

Step 1. Identify the Task/Project

This clearly needs to be a task or project that a leader can “ring-fence” and sensibly offer to someone else to do in the first place. This may well be a small or routine project initially but the leader can add complexity to the delegated tasks chosen as his or her confidence in his/her own efforts and those to whom he/she delegates grows. 

Step 2.   Identify the right person

This simply means choosing the most appropriate person to perform the task or project and making sure that he or she is willing, capable and interested, especially given his or her current workload. Clearly, it is also important to match the particular task to the skills and experience of the person to whom a leader wishes to delegate. 

Step 3. Brief the person and set goals and priorities

This involves carefully describing what you’re aiming for by delegating and how and by when you expect results. The aim here is for a leader to set specific goals and targets and then to offer as much help in the form of support as the task requires and the person needs (see next step).

Step 4. Coach/Support the individual appropriately

The amount of coaching, training and/or support will obviously vary according to the task and person doing it, but in general it is better to be more around to offer guidance than not, especially in the early stages or when you are delegating to someone for the first time. This allows review milestones to be set and for check-in discussions to occur as necessary.

Step 5. Recognize the effort or contribution

The quality of results is likely to vary greatly across different tasks and according to the different people doing them but in all cases it is important to always jointly learn from the experience for next time and to offer thanks for the efforts, as well as recognition for a job done well, when it is due. 


Our simple goal as a leader should be to make delegation part of our normal work schedule, and to identify occasions when we can help others, both when our bosses delegate to us because we have greater skills or capacity, and on occasions when a leader can entrust other people with delegated tasks (because they have the capability to help themselves and even the leader to grow from the experience). If we can do even a little bit more delegating, we will not only empower the members of our team, but give ourselves much more freedom as leaders to do new or different tasks and projects ourselves (a virtuous circle for all involved).

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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