In most companies, success at the lower rungs of an organizational hierarchy often means moving up — to management, more responsibility, and higher levels of accountability. The idea is that success at producing work will translate into success at managing others who produce work.

Sometimes that is the case. Sometimes it is not.

Nevertheless, as you accumulate authority over and responsibility for the work of others, you’ll be challenged by the negative emotions associated with a loss of control. Ironically, grasping for control is one of the most common ways people manage negative emotions.

In too many organizations, trust is expected to flow up to those who have authority, accumulate the profits, and take the credit. Control is directed down towards those who have responsibility, receive wages, and take the blame. These are the organizations that fail to develop leaders, because they are managed out of fear.

Real trust exists in ourselves.
Image courtesy of the author.

If you grasp for control, subordinates will sense that your oversight is motivated by a need to manage your fears rather than an interest in professional development. As a result, they may complain that you are micromanaging.

True leadership is different from management — and it’s especially different from micromanagement. As Seth Godin explains, “Leadership embraces failure of your people when it leads to growth.” By contrast, according to Godin, management is about doing the same thing “a little faster, a little cheaper, and with (somewhat) fewer defects.” He’s not interested.

You can tell a manager from a leader by how they delegate.

There are few people in modern organizational structures who are either managers or leaders. Most perform both functions, albeit to different degrees.

You can tell a manager from a leader by how they delegate. When the topic of delegation came up in a conversation with one of my most important mentors, he told me, “Tom, assign tasks to the least competent person in your group.”

Wait a minute. What now?

No manager would accept this advice because assigning tasks to the least competent person in the group would be a good way to ensure those tasks get screwed up. Every time. But that’s not really what my mentor was suggesting.

He put the emphasis on competent, not on least.

First, he suggested, identify people who are competent to perform the task. It’s important that you know they can get the job done. But don’t assign it to the person who is most competent. Even if they’re able to do a better job, they’ll learn less. Instead, assign tasks to the least competent person in the group, because they’ll learn the most.

You see, as I developed new skills, I took on new tasks. I moved up in my organization. As the number of things I could do well expanded, the number of things I had to say “no, thank you” to expanded even faster.

Assign tasks to the least competent person in the group, because they’ll learn the most.

Now, I’m better off delegating the things I know I can do better than my subordinates because continuing to grow requires me to take on new tasks at the boundaries of my expertise. It’s the same for those I manage. In order to help them grow, I need to give them tasks that put them in a state of eustress, just like me.

But what will I do when they screw it up?

This is where trust comes in. There’s a challenge of trust in personal relationships like dating and parenting, and the same logic applies to your professional relationships—although the mechanics and motivations behind the relationship might be different.

I’m not a big believer in Stephen Covey’s emotional/trust bank account analogy. I think the idea of adding up the positive and negative interactions you have with someone and calibrating the extent to which you’re willing to be vulnerable to their mistakes is a pretty poor idea. It sounds to me like the opposite of trust, because trust in personal relationships should not be transactional. If you’re doing a trust audit on a relationship, you’re probably better off without that person in your life.

It is not in others with whom we place our trust. Real trust exists in ourselves. And true leadership is about trust.

When I delegate a task, I remain 100% responsible for my subordinate’s performance on that task. The responsibility doesn’t scare me because I know I’m competent to fix whatever mistake they might make. After all, I trained them. I vetted them. I’ve instituted the policies and protocols that keep us in a state of hypercommunication.

I don’t have to micromanage the subordinate to manage my fears by grasping for control because I can embrace their (temporary) failures as opportunities for them to grow. The result will lead to more competent, productive, and fulfilled subordinates and an effective blending of Godin’s leadership with my management responsibilities.

If I’ve reached the point where I’m tallying up a subordinate’s failures and weighing them against their successes, I’m probably better off without them in my organization.