Leadership is a lot like a ropes course – you are confronted with challenge after challenge, each one testing your skills and giving you an opportunity for personal development and team growth. In this series, we are looking at elements of “The Leadership Ropes Course” that all leaders need to face – and master!
Chances are good that you have done a Trust Fall at some point in your life, either on a ropes course or in another team-building activity. You fall backward and trust that your team members will catch you. Occasionally, the fall is from a platform several feet off the ground, raising the stakes that are involved.
Now, think about your team members and answer this question: would you find it easier to physically fall backward into their waiting hands, or to delegate responsibilities to them?
For many leaders, the tougher proposition is to delegate. James Sipe and Don Frick in their classic book Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, observe that “The skills of delegating responsibility are easy to learn – be clear with expectations, provide the necessary resources, agree on a deadline, and be available to help. The biggest hurdle is the decision to delegate, in trust and without micromanaging” (emphasis added).
Think about what happens in a physical Trust Fall if you aren’t comfortable with it. You might take a step back at the last moment to catch yourself from falling. You might try to lower yourself onto the waiting hands instead of letting gravity do the job. You might look behind you nervously.
Leaders pull back in the same ways when they aren’t comfortable with delegation. They snatch back responsibilities that they have given to another person. They try to control the situation rather than letting their team member really do the work. They constantly check up on what the other person is doing.
If you are having trouble delegating, think about the multiple purposes of a Trust Fall and how they correlate with delegation:
- You learn to trust your team members. Physically, mastering the Trust Fall allows you to advance to more challenging elements on the ropes course where you must rely on your team to keep you safe when you may be dozens of feet above the ground. In like manner, when you learn to delegate, you can go on to do the more challenging, higher-value work that you never have time for if you are stuck doing everything yourself.
- Your team members learn to trust you. Don’t forget … everyone has to do the Trust Fall! Your team members catch you, and then you participate in catching each of them. Similarly, as you delegate responsibilities and provide your team members with the support they need to succeed, they learn that you can be trusted to stand with them. Sipe and Frick write, “When it is time to delegate responsibility, Servant-Leaders take on partners rather than subordinates. They offer clear guidelines and remain available to support the people they have asked for help. In fact, they see themselves as servants to their helping partners.”
- You give opportunities for new leaders to arise. It is common in a physical Trust Fall for one person to step up to coordinate the others and guide the exercise. In the same way, when you delegate, you open the door for people to become leaders in their own right, such as by managing a project or overseeing an initiative. Since one of your primary responsibilities as a leader is to develop other leaders, delegation is a tool you want to use to the fullest extent.
Trust is not easy, but it is foundational to great teamwork. Trust your team. Make the decision to delegate responsibilities to them. All of you will grow in the process and the benefits to your business will get better and better.