Successful leadership means picking the right people for the right assignments and developing them. These followers are not clones of the leader but are people who have talents that may be dormant or underdeveloped. Theodore Roosevelt, an action-oriented leader, explained the importance of delegation: “The best leader is one who has enough sense to pick good people to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint to keep from meddling while they do it.”

In her wonderful book Jesus CEO, management author Laurie Beth Jones writes regarding targeted selection: "Who would pick someone who smells like fish and mud? Who would pick an unpopular tax collector? Who would pick leaders from filthy wharves and toil-filled fields? But He did, and together they changed the world."1

Effective leadership involves seeing qualities in others unknown to themselves and treating others in a way that brings out their best. The effective leader uses the multiplication key--the ability to delegate--to develop others and achieve more success than would otherwise be possible.

In today's downsized, fast-paced, and high-tech workplace, delegation is not only advisable but also necessary for success. All employees need to be involved if the full value of their skills is to be realized.

There are two ways of exerting leadership strength: One is pushing down through intimidation; the other is pulling up through delegation. Pulling up through delegation is infinitely more effective, and it is the chosen approach of the successful leader.

A role model for effective delegation was Thomas Alva Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park and the greatest inventor of the modern age. By the end of his life, Edison was granted 1,093 patents for his inventions, 1 for every 11 days of his adult life. Edison gave credit for his success to the men he worked with, a mixed crew of dreamers, gadgeteers, and craftsmen who worked as a team.

A story that is characteristic of him is one of delegation and trust: When Edison was working on improving his first light bulb, to the astonishment of onlookers, he handed a finished bulb to a younger helper, who nervously carried it upstairs step-by-step to the vacuum machine. At the last moment, the boy dropped it. The whole team had to work another 24 hours to make the bulb again, but when Edison looked around for someone to carry it upstairs, he gave it to the same boy. The gesture probably changed the young man’s life. Edison knew more than a light bulb was at stake.2

There are many reasons leaders fail to delegate. Some do not have the know-how. Others do not think their employees will do the job as well as they themselves will. Others do not trust their employees to follow through. Still, others fail to delegate because they fear their employees will show them up by doing a better job.

Regardless of the cause, failure to delegate should be corrected for two important reasons:

  1. Delegation gives the leader time to carry out important responsibilities in the areas of establishing direction, aligning resources, and energizing people.
  2. Delegation helps prepare employees for more difficult tasks and additional responsibilities. Employees who are bored and underused come alive when important jobs are delegated to them.3

Steps and Rules for Effective Delegation

The following rules for effective delegation apply to leading individuals as well as groups. Leaders who incorporate these rules will maximize the job performance and work morale of employees and will increase the overall productivity of their work groups.4

  • Share power with employees.

    Fight the natural fear, common to all leaders, of losing control. Remember, to hoard your power is to lose it. Only by delegating authority to others and holding them accountable for results will you accomplish more and greater work.
  • Don't delegate the bad jobs and save the good ones for yourself.

    Don't be like the supervisor who always calls on her or his assistant for the dirty work, late-night work, and disciplining, reserving for her- or himself all the easy assignments and the ones that bring reward.
  • When possible use the US versus Soviet military guide for delegation of tasks.

    Since the Civil War, the US military has used the principle of commander’s intent followed by creativity of action to achieve objectives; the Soviet approach is strong central decision making with rigorous adherence to execution without deviation.
  • Know your employees.

    Effective delegation requires knowing the aptitudes and interests of all your employees. If all else is equal, assign social tasks to employees who enjoy dealing with people, fact-finding and report preparation to those who enjoy investigation and writing, and hands-on work to employees who like personal involvement. Include idea-oriented employees in brainstorming or in formulating policies. Capitalize on the special strengths of all your employees.
  • Let employees know what decisions they have authority to make and delegate decision-making to the lowest possible level.

    This approach improves effectiveness and efficiency by avoiding referrals through many departments and levels of an organization to solve a problem or receive an answer.
  • Delegate whole tasks so that employees can see projects through to completion; allow sufficient time to get jobs done.

    Avoid the "Zeigarnik effect," a term attributed to the Russian researcher Bluma Zeigarnik, in which employee morale, commitment, and performance deteriorate because employees are not able to finish tasks. Work that has not been started may or may not be a motivator, but unfinished tasks almost always demotivate.5
  • Insist on clear communication.

    Obtain agreement to provide regular feedback on progress and problems. An effective technique is to post a visible calendar with assignment due dates marked. Clear communication and conscientious follow-up will ensure the success of delegated tasks.
  • Make good use of questions when delegating work.

    Encourage employees to ask questions to clarify assignments. Also, ask what you can do to help them succeed.

Person–Position Fit

A good rule to follow in selecting employees and assigning work is PAP:

  • Performance.

    Can the person do the work at the level required? Will job performance be high? The best indications are previous performance and current work samples.
  • Attitude.

    Does the person want to do the work? Will motivation be high to try one’s best? The best indication is behavior itself. Measure commitment by actions, not words.
  • Psycho-social compatibility.

    Will the work location, schedule, culture, and the like match individual and family needs? The best indication comes from full information exchange. This may require location and job visits, as well as informational interviews covering the values and behavior of management, how co-workers treat each other, and what employee behavior is rewarded or punished.

Two out of three are not enough. For example, a person may possess exactly the knowledge and skills required and may want to do the work, but psycho-social factors may not match. All three elements must be present for a positive fit between the person and the position. When this is the case, the payoff will be enormous in both high morale and work performance. Remember that once a person is hired and deployed, organizational structure, resources, and processes must be present for the person to succeed.6

Good Work

Related to the concept of person-position fit and the value of matching personal interests with job families is the idea of doing good work. Psychologists Howard Gardner and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi define good work as "work that exhibits a high level of expertise and application for the benefit of the wider world."7 It is captured by Martin Luther King: "If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'"8

Many leaders in all lines of work are inspired to do good work as a life purpose. It helps explain their dedication and, sometimes, enormous sacrifice in service to people and causes outside themselves. It is not unusual for such individuals to view leadership, itself, as a calling. It is interesting to note that the individual and the employer together may have the power to define good work or to transform bad work into good work, and vice versa.


  1. L. Jones, Jesus CEO (New York: Hyperion, 1996).
  2. J. Newton, Uncommon Friends (New York: Harcourt, 1989).
  3. B. Tracy, Delegation and Supervision (Washington, DC: Amacon, 2013); and R. Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
  4. A. Uris, The Executive Deskbook (Florence, KY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988); B. Tracy, Delegation and Supervision (New York: Amacon, 2013); and L. Wiseman, Multipliers (New York: Harper Business, 2010).
  5. N. Maier, Psychology in Industrial Organizations, 5th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982), pp. 437-38.
  6. N. Peterson et al., eds., An Occupational Information System for the 21st Century: The Development of O*NET (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1999); A. Kristof-Brown et al., "Consequences of Individuals' Fit at Work: A Meta-Analysis," Personnel Psychology (Summer 2005), pp. 281-342; and C. Hult, "Organization Commitment and Person-Environment Fit," Organizational Studies 26 (2010), pp. 249-70.
  7. H. Gardner, "Good Work, Well Done," The Chronicle of Higher Education (February 22, 2002), p. B7.
  8. H. Gardner, et al., Good Work (New York: Basic Books, 2002).