Center for Organizational Leadership

Empowering Effective Leaders

Deftly Delegating: You Can't Look Ahead When You're Looking Down

By Dr. Donny Lee

Dean, Harding University Cannon-Clary College of Education

Imagine captaining a ship would be relatively simply. All I must do is stand up on the bridge and give orders. And everything goes just as planned. At least that’s what I’ve seen on television and in movies.

Putting on my real-world glasses, I suppose being the captain of a ship is more than a title or uniform. Captaining might go relatively smoothly until I encounter a rogue wave, a hurricane, an outbreak of food poisoning, navigation issues, engine problems, and maybe a mutiny. I threw the last one in from my Pirates of the Caribbean days.

So, what would this leadership experience require? Given all of the possibilities I’ve listed (with maybe the exception of a mutiny), it is likely that simply standing majestically on the bridge is not all there is to it.

I should note that I am not a ship’s captain, nor have I have ever been, so I am speaking metaphorically from my experiences as a leader in multiple organizations. Combining the metaphor with my experiences helps me see the importance of what we call delegation. Honestly, I’ve never liked that word much. It sounds just too, I don’t know, blah and mundane. It doesn’t have the punch of vision, decisiveness, and authority. But vision, decisiveness, and authority cannot happen without delegation.

If one were to captain a fishing boat, he or she could serve all roles and indeed would likely manage it well. Scale this to a modern cruise ship, and he would quickly find himself disrespected, disoriented, and discouraged. The complexity and size of most organizations, like a cruise ship, require us to delegate some of our responsibilities, or we find ourselves sitting dead in the water, or worse, cruising rudderless with no direction.

Delegation is sometimes challenging to pull off. It requires several requisite dispositional tendencies on the part of the leader as well as those who receive the delegated tasks, and often, delegation encounters some turbulence of its own. As leaders, we must realize several things to become accomplished delegators:

First, we need to see ourselves as the decision makers — the ones with the authority and responsibility to delegate. We can’t wait for someone else to make those decisions.

Second, we need to be willing to give up some amount of control. Control is often the hardest part of this because we all want to hold onto that power, and as leaders, we tend to cling too tightly because we are afraid something will go wrong, or things won’t be done the way we prefer. Or worse, all this delegation will reflect negatively on us. This temptation of avoiding delegation is a hard one to resist, but resist we must.

Third, we must create a culture in which people are willing to accept delegated responsibilities with our confidence and trust in them to carry them out. Otherwise, delegation becomes control in disguise.


The culture of the organization will facilitate or impede effective delegation. A culture that creates and fosters safety to make mistakes is essential. Otherwise, fear will be the driver and undermine the whole process. Safety and confidence come from us when we provide clarity, empathy, and accessibility. As leaders, we must clearly state our expectations, share our authority, and invite reporting. Delegation of responsibility without authority is demoralizing. Once we’ve delegated responsibilities to our people, we must invite them to come to us with questions, frustrations, and challenges. As we respond with empathy and provide clear feedback, we empower and support our colleagues.

Assuming all these conditions are met, delegation still occurs in a real-world, real-time environment. Like the cruise ship, it’s easier to operate with this arrangement until the storm hits, or the engine malfunctions, or an outbreak of food poisoning happens. (Or maybe a mutiny.) This environment, or ecosystem of the organization, is full of twists and turns, and the complexity from both inside and outside forces often makes these twists and turns unpredictable, as they often occur simultaneously. The temptation at such a time is for the leader to circle the wagons (read: de-delegate) and reassume control in times of trouble. Yet this is when delegation and the distributed leadership and responsibilities are most vital. Imagine a cruise ship in a storm, and the captain says, “Everyone stand down. I’ll handle this myself.” We might as well all put on our life preservers!

For you, as the leader, delegation is both liberating and empowering when you complete the transaction with trust and confidence. This allows you to – using the ship metaphor – turn your attention to the horizon. You cannot look ahead when you’re looking down. Details, minutiae, and processes can consume attention, time, and energy, and most or all of these can be tended to quite adequately through empowering delegation. Everyone is looking to you, as the leader, for direction, courage, and assurance. You will have all of these to offer when you know, trust, and empower your people through delegation.

The cruise ship is deftly sailing through the waters, the captain is standing on the bow peering toward the horizon, and the crew is tending the various tasks that take this powerful and complex vessel to its destination. Whether stormy seas, calm swells, or structural stresses, the tight and powerful threads of delegation will ensure the integrity of the enterprise. Delegation may be a weak-sounding word, but it is a powerful idea, and an even more powerful reality when done well.


Dr. Donny Lee serves as Dean of the Harding University Cannon-Clary College of Education. He joined the faculty at Harding in 1998 and previously served as associate dean before stepping into the dean position in 2015. Before Harding, he was superintendent of Central Arkansas Christian Schools, and prior to that worked a principal and teacher in the Pulaski County Special School District in Jacksonville, Arkansas. He has served as a consultant to educational cooperatives and school districts in multiple states for more than 30 years, and he currently serves as Chair of the Arkansas Professional Licensure Standards Board. He and his wife Gale live in Searcy, Arkansas. They have two grown children.

Topics: Leadership