You’ve heard the adage “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” In leadership, there’s a similar principle: “If you think delegation is risky, try micromanagement.” If a leader doesn’t learn to delegate effectively, that leader will simply not progress. Nor will anyone else. At its essence, leadership is based on the principles of delegation and accountability — the process of dividing work, assigning it to others and having them give account of their performance.

Task-level delegation

Think about it this way: Delegation happens at three levels. The first level is the task level. When I assign my son to cut the grass, I'm giving him a task. It's the most basic unit of work and most fundamental level of performance. Our society teaches the first lessons of leadership and the first level of accountability at the task level. It’s our culture’s K-12 curriculum for becoming a successful individual.

Project-level delegation

When a person consistently demonstrates the ability to perform at the task level, it’s time to graduate to the project level of accountability. Project-level delegation is the process of assigning a group of related tasks with a given scope, parameters, timeline and objectives. Now it’s cut the grass, trim and edge this week. When we delegate at the project level, we transfer more responsibility and therefore assume more risk as leaders. But if we don’t do it, we don’t grow as leaders and our charges don’t either. Leadership gets more hazardous, and yet it’s the only way for people to progress.

Outcome-level delegation

Now comes the big test — for both the leader and the led — giving and receiving responsibility at the outcome level. At this level, we don’t prescribe the tasks, tools or process. We simply say, “This is the outcome we’re looking for. Go make it happen.” For my son, it's please deliver a manicured yard. Once again, we have to manage risk prudently, but at some point a person is ready for final graduation to this highest level of accountability. This is the level at which executive leaders are held accountable by boards of directors. Of course outcome-level delegation requires that a leader discerningly assess the capability and self-directedness of the individual.

With these three levels of delegation in mind, consider four common patters of leadership.

The buddy. The buddy profile of a leader is someone who can build a strong bond with people and yet not hold them strictly accountable for performance. We often see this profile in sales organizations where a sales manager connects well with the team but hesitates when there’s a performance issue. Leaders in the “buddy box” want to be liked and shrink from the task of holding others accountable. Relationships rank higher than responsibility.

The micromanager. The micromanager is the leader who refuses to delegate and empower. We micromanage when we don’t have confidence that people can do the job. If a person can do the job, why would we still micromanage? Either we’re insecure in our ability to give up control or we cling to it out of overabundant ego. In either case, we retard growth, breed dependency and send clear signal of no confidence. As British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith once said of his junior minister, Winston Churchill, “He will never get to the top of English politics, with all his wonderful gifts; to speak with the tongues of men and angels, and to spend laborious days and nights in administration, is no good, if a man does not inspire trust.”

The absentee landlord. The absentee landlord combines low trust and low delegation. Control is not the guiding impulse, but freedom from responsibility. The absentee landlord delegates but doesn’t follow up. It’s my observation that most absentee landlords live under the false assumption that organizations can run themselves and that high performance can be self-executing. Or, they simply don’t want to be in a leadership role.

The effective leader. The fourth category is the effective leader, a combination of high trust and high accountability. The effective leader builds strong personal relationships with people and yet holds them accountable at the same time. This flies in the face of the idea that a leader must maintain professional distance in order to maintain accountability. The best leaders do the very opposite. They build close personal relationships with people and hold them accountable at the same time.

The elusive combination of strong accountability and high trust is what makes the effective leader.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. E-mail: [email protected]