There are two styles of leadership which are often mistaken, which in reality are very different. Sometimes team members being led confuse the two. Sometimes it is leaders themselves who mistake one for the other. What am I talking about? I am talking about the difference between hands-off delegation to team members and the abdication of responsibility, interest or involvement.
A good leader delegates, and delegates in a relatively hands-off way. The leader makes a choice to let go. Such leaders may let go a little or a lot - depending on the situation as well as the skills and maturity of the team. They let go because they trust their teams. They want their team members to learn. They want to motivate them by giving them responsibility. They know a mistake now and again is a small price to pay for a developing team. But the good leader remembers that delegation is not the same as forgetting, ignoring or absolving oneself of responsibility. A poor leader forgets and ignores rather than delegates. This type of leader abdicates responsibility.
It can be seductively pleasant to work for an abdicating leader. It can feel good to have a sense of complete freedom. Roles can expand. You can feel in control. But when something goes wrong the abdicating leaders, (they should really not be called leaders – but they think of themselves as such), may forget their past forgetfulness. They deny that you ever had authority to do what you are doing. You are now left high and dry. Abdicating leaders not only give space – they give you all the risk.
It is easy to mistake delegation and abdication. As long as everything is going well the results may be the same. With a strong team, team members may get along just fine most of the time with an abdicating leader.
But a risk remains, and it’s the sort of risk that it’s neither fair nor reasonable to leave to the team. A real leader’s neck is still on the line even when they have given maximum space to their team. That’s one of the reasons teams value a good leader. It’s one of the reasons a team will follow a good leader come what may.
The classic situation is when you find a problem at work and raise it with your boss. The abdicating leader may listen to your problem, but the response is “I have heard you, now you must solve it”. The delegating leaders response is subtly different “I understand you. How do you think this should be solved?” The delegating leader helps you identify solutions – and provides help and support in executing your solution.
One of the dangerous words in this context is “empowerment”. Empowerment is an important concept, but rarely do we spend the time to find out exactly what is meant when a leader uses this word. For some leaders empowerment means giving team members the freedom to take the initiative, to make improvements without seeking permission and to generally have space to get on and do their work as they see fit. But it is surrounded by a layer of support and unobtrusive oversight. This is the approach of the delegating leader. The abdicator uses the work empowerment to mean – “it’s all yours now, don’t bother me again.”
The message for team members is take care. Learn to differentiate between when you are being given space and when you are being left to sink or swim. The message for leaders is focus on the important things – delegate and trust your team to deliver, but remember delegation is not abdication.