Delegative Leadership: Giving Intent and Giving Up Control

Empowering employees has been a western world trend for decades, making businesses more efficient by pushing decisions down to where the expertise and information are, and developing initiative, skills, and morale in junior leaders. But are you willing to take the heat if your direct reports make mistakes? Follow these guidelines for successful implementation of the delegative style of leadership.

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Imagine you are a mid-level manager in a large high-tech corporation, which runs many facilities around the globe. You’re not sure whether your boss has great faith in you, or just has some grudge against you, because she has assigned you to take charge of one of the poorest performing facilities. They have had several on-site accidents, poor quality control, and lack of productivity in developing products and getting them to market. The company has a first-rate recruitment operation, attracting many high-potential candidates, but the turnover rate at this place is the worst in the company, with many employees staying on for only a few months before quitting. Morale seems abysmal. What would be your first actions? How would you approach this problem and try to turn things around? Do you think this is a situation that calls for a firm hand, in a more authoritative style of leadership? With retention and morale so low, could you trust the workers with a more delegative style of leadership?

To formulate a plan for this leadership challenge, we should consider various leadership styles available to us. In a previous article, I discussed a spectrum of leadership styles, ranging from authoritative to delegative, based on the amount of control retained by leaders and independence given to followers. When we overlay that spectrum on a matrix of worker motivation and capabilities, we can see how circumstance might call for exerting more or less control as a leader. For example, we examined several cases of crisis situations appropriate for a more directive, authoritative style in the last article, “Are You Prepared to Lead in a Crisis?”


Releasing Control—A Submariner’s Example

When is it time to release control as a leader and delegate authority and responsibility to junior workers? One former US Navy submarine commander, Captain L. David Marquet, faced a situation similar to the scenario above, and advocates a high-delegation style of leadership, which he labels “Intent-Based Leadership”. His excellent leadership book, Turn the Ship Around!, tells his story of being selected to take charge of one of the submarine fleet’s poorest performing vessels.


The nuclear-powered submarine Santa Fe had consistently low inspection scores and a terrible reenlistment rate of its sailors, reflecting poor morale. When Captain Marquet took command of the Santa Fe, he had been given little time to prepare for the challenge, as the Navy originally had him in a pipeline to take command of another vessel, the Olympia. Faced with an overwhelmingly complex ship and a crew that had become defeatist, he brainstormed with his new leadership team on how to improve the situation. You can hear him tell the story in the video below.

As we saw in the video, Captain Marquet’s leadership team suggested the solution that he, as the commander, “Shut Up.” In other words, they were asking him to delegate more authority and responsibility to the crew members, rather than come onboard as a raging enforcer of discipline. There’s a sarcastic saying throughout the US military, “The beatings will continue until morale improves,” that resonates with soldiers precisely because it touches on the truth. Captain Marquet knew he could not force motivation and morale on his people—it would take a more sophisticated, but risky, approach.


The Captain stopped giving orders, and replaced it with the expectation that his sailors should take the initiative and communicate their intent to act. Instead of barking commands that left no room for independent thinking of subordinates, he established a working environment in which the workers, knowing the intent of the organization and the commander, could respond with their own initiative to accomplish that intent. Captain Marquet emphasizes how the change from asking permission to declaring intent flipped the psychological ownership of action, so that sailors took a more active part in thinking about and executing work. If workers are always coming to the boss and asking, “What should I do next?” the boss will always be overwhelmed and the followers will never develop. In an ideal world of delegation, a leader avoids being “the answer person” and grows young leaders in every junior worker.


But what does it take to reach that ideal work culture—what are the conditions for delegative leadership? Captain Marquet highlights two pillars—competency and organizational clarity—that must be in place before handing over control.


Leaders must set their followers up for success before they start handing off responsibilities for tasks. Giving a person a task to perform when they don’t yet have the tools needed to accomplish the task can have long-term and devastating consequences for the confidence and potential of that person. Leaders need to accurately evaluate the capability levels of each individual. A leader’s evaluation of competency takes judgment–competency is situationally-dependent, for one may be competent in one area, or at one period of time, but not competent in other situations. Competency is also multi-faceted. Author Stephen M. R. Covey, in his book The Speed of Trust, breaks competency (he uses the term capability) into five components: Talent, Attitude, Skills, Knowledge, and Style (TASKS). Talents are the natural strengths of a person, and good leaders recognize and build on those natural talents when they delegate. In 2013, Deloitte discovered that the majority (42%) of survey respondents looking for another job didn’t think their employers were making good use of their talents. Leaders also need to promote positive attitudes that willingly accept responsibility for acting independently. A leader’s responsibility, before delegating, includes providing and evaluating the relevant skills training and knowledge education for specific tasks. In the fast-changing pace of today’s world, it’s also important to ensure that the skills and knowledge stay relevant to the times. As Covey points out, when people don’t continuously improve their skills and knowledge, their “fifteen years of experience” in a company may only be one year repeated fifteen times! Finally, the competency required for delegation requires that workers learn the ability to relate to others in styles fitting to the task. Highly talented and skilled workers with can-do attitudes, but who can’t relate well to others, may not be ready for delegation.

Two proven methods for increasing competency are establishing mentoring and coaching programs and regularly conducting after action reviews. Many companies simply go through the motions on these two methods, not fully devoting the time and resources required to reach the depth which yield the most results. Effective mentoring and coaching results from building trust relationships over time, and takes personal investment by the mentor and the learner. After action reviews—taking the time to capture lessons learned from each operation—are also often brushed over. In the rush of events, we tend to hurry from one project to the next without taking the time to reflect on how we might grow from our experiences. If we want our team to be fully prepared to take on delegated duties, however, we can count on a positive return on investments in mentoring, coaching, and capturing lessons learned.


Organizational Clarity –The Leader’s Intent

The idea of a communicating intent as Captain Marquet implemented on his submarine is not new in the military. Many people have a wrong impression of military leadership, envisioning red-faced drill sergeants shouting orders to unhesitant, obedient troops—but that concept is as outdated as 19th Century Napoleonic warfare, when rows of soldiers were required to maintain rigid formations. The environment and circumstances faced by today’s military leaders, just like their business counterparts, are dynamic and complex, and leadership styles changed accordingly.  Successful military leaders rely on clearly communicating intent to their highly-trained troops, so that soldiers can creatively adapt their knowledge to specific situations to accomplish intended objectives. The highest level of communicating objectives is known as “Commander’s Intent.” A US Army document defines commander’s intent as a description of the desired end state of an action.

“It is a concise statement of the purpose of the operation and must be understood two levels below the level of the issuing commander. It must clearly state the purpose of the mission. It is the single unifying focus for all subordinate elements. Its purpose is to focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished in order to achieve success, even when the plan and concept no longer apply, and to discipline their efforts toward that end.”

In other words, the commander’s intent succinctly tells everyone what success looks like, and this principle easily applies beyond the military. Leaders provide the organizational clarity needed for successful delegation by articulating their Leader’s Intent. This embodies the recently popular notion of providing the “why” of what an organization does. We can make a simple leader’s intent statement by completing the following: “I desire our team to ..….. in order to ……….” The first part of the statement tells people what you want to have done (but not how), and the second gives the reason behind why you want that done.


Leaders should broadcast their intent statements to followers; but simply stating the intent is not sufficient for success. Leaders must also be visible and open with their team, developing relationships that show caring and involvement. If we want to have that ideal situation that Captain Marquet describes, with an entire crew of thinking, active, passionate, proactive people, we need to share our values and why we hold those values. We perform an effective mentoring function when we explain our rationale for our decision making to our team, helping them to understand decisions and develop their own capabilities. At the same time, we cannot always be in broadcast mode; we must be receptive to feedback. Leaving space for dialogue with followers is not a sign of weakness… it’s an opportunity for growth. Finally, in the independence that we give in delegating, we still need to establish boundaries. It’s empowering to employees to make their own decisions, developing their own paths to success, based on following our intentions, but they still need to know the limits of what we can accept. Following these guidelines in establishing intent makes the organization’s goals clear, setting up the conditions for workers to accept delegated tasks and create their own solutions.

When making decisions on delegating leadership responsibilities, aside from competency and organizational clarity, we should also evaluate time constraints, team formation ability, and cultural factors. Time crisis situations don’t eliminate the need for delegation, but they do require more active direction from a central source. In a crisis, the organization usually can’t afford the additional time for followers to explore their own paths, and the team needs to be more focused. The cohesiveness of team members also affects the potential effectiveness of delegating leadership. Handing down responsibilities to subordinates who face a hostile colleague environment may put them in an uncomfortable, and unwinnable, situation.

The idea of empowering workers has been trendy in western countries for many decades already; however, cultural differences in other regions require additional consideration before delegating leadership. One aspect of culture that experts use to describe differences is called “Power Distance.” Power distance is defined by social psychologist Geert Hofstede as “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.” High power distance cultures accept inequalities, feel comfortable with strictly hierarchical organizations, and tend to respect and trust leadership. An ideal leader in a high power distance culture is a “benevolent autocrat,” and challenges to leadership are frowned upon. In exchange for loyalty, respect, and acceptance of the power inequalities, the superior is expected to provide protection and benevolence. Asian countries in particular tend to be high power distance. Delegating leadership duties in a high power distance culture will require more understanding and coaching to overcome cultural challenges. Artist Yang Liu perfectly illustrates the differences in power distance in the following picture:

Yang Liu’s art illustrates how western cultures view power distance differently than many Asian cultures. Western view is the blue background, Asian view the red. Source: Yang Liu: East meets West

Risks and Rewards of Delegative Leadership

What are the risks and rewards involved in delegating leadership authority and responsibility? First, we can never fully divest our authority and responsibility. As former US President Harry Truman famously displayed on his desk, “The Buck Stops Here.” We risk having to take responsibility for the failure of our team, even if we aren’t directly at fault. This is why Captain Marquet’s decision to “never give another order” was so risky; if one of his sailors screwed up, he as the captain would have been the one to answer for the mistake. A second risk is a danger to the followers more than the leader—destroying self-confidence. If we hand over responsibility to subordinates without setting them up for success—without making our expectations and intent exceptionally clear and without ensuring they have the competency to succeed—and if they fail, they may lose confidence to accept responsibility in the future. Without giving the proper support, encouragement, and caring oversight, our followers can suffer emotional damage that hinders their personal development.

In many cases, though, the rewards will far outweigh risks. First of all, distributing leadership power to the lowest level possible develops everyone’s leadership potential. Most people respond to challenges and expectations—if we don’t expect and challenge people to take charge and think independently about improving personal and company performance, they will stagnate, or become frustrated. Delegating leadership also builds teamwork, as junior leaders form teams and interact with one another in creating solutions to problems. Additionally, people will feel more engaged and accept ownership in the process when they are the ones expected to answer the question, “What do I do next?” Finally, under the right conditions, delegative leadership can be much more efficient and effective, because it moves the authority closer to the technical expertise and information. Although we start out as experts in our field, when we climb the leadership ladder, we lose the close contact with operations and information. With power distributed closer to the operations, as long as everyone is headed in the same direction, decisions can be made more quickly and with more accurate, up-to-date information.


Captain Marquet’s story of turning a dysfunctional nuclear submarine crew into a model of proactive, multi-tiered leaders is compelling. His leadership completely reversed the problems of retention, and the effect of his reforms was sustainable. The submarine continued to perform excellently and win awards long after his departure as Captain. Probably most telling is his legacy of leadership. His two executive officers and three department heads went on to command their own submarines, and the promotion rate of leaders under his command far exceeded Navy averages. The measure of great leaders lies not in just their accomplishments, but in the leaders that they develop as their legacy. The delegative leadership style is perhaps the best method for leadership development, but takes much more finesse than just throwing tasks left and right to lighten the load at the top. Before trying to delegate leadership, first follow these guidelines to build your legacy of leaders:

Guidelines for Successful Delegative Leadership

Develop Competency

  • Talent          – Match natural talents and inclinations to task
  • Attitude       – Encourage a proactive attitude
  • Skills            – Provide relevant skills training
  • Knowledge – Provide relevant education opportunities
  • Styles           – Develop social skills capable of forming and leading teams
  • Mentor and Coach
  • Conduct After Action Reviews
  • Account for cultural differences

Provide Organizational Clarity

  • Clearly communicate leader’s intent
  • Be visible and open
  • Share your values and why you hold them
  • Explain your decision making rationales
  • Receive feedback
  • Establish boundaries


Analyze your own organization. Are the conditions in place for implementing the delegative “leadership by intent” as practiced by Captain Marquet? What is the current level of competency in technical capabilities and leadership-team building skills? What actions can the organization take to improve competency? Are the leadership and organizational expectations and intentions clearly communicated? What specific tasks or responsibilities can be handed down to lower levels of leadership?


Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

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