One of the skills we talk about with new supervisors or committee chairs is the skill of delegation. It can be one of the toughest things we have to do as leaders – to acknowledge that we alone are not responsible for the success of our organizational endeavors. We truly can’t do it all. We have to depend on others. In our leadership dance, we have to let go of our partner’s hand and trust that they know the steps.
When we delegate, we are not only handing off a task, we are sharing the responsibility and we have to trust in another’s ability and their willingness to do what is needed to complete that task. When we delegate, we have to be willing to allow for different ideas about the best way to accomplish the task, we have to be willing to give the other person space to be creative, and we have to be willing to understand that mistakes may happen.
Understanding that mistakes will happen is important for leaders, but it is also necessary for every member of a group. Michael McCullough, professor of psychology at the University of Miami puts it this way, “…one of the ingredients you have to have to get individuals to cooperate with each other is a tolerance for mistakes.” I had never really thought of it this way before, but it makes sense, doesn’t it?
McCullough goes on to say, “Sometimes I’m going to let you down….And if you take each of those mistakes as the last word about my cooperative disposition, you might just give up and so no cooperation gets done. So, really our ability to cooperate with each other and make things happen that we can’t do on our own is undergirded by an ability to forgive each other for occasional defects and mistakes.”*
Therefore, as leaders not only do we need to learn to delegate, we need to pay attention to the way we respond to mistakes, and we need to foster a willingness among all members of the group to tolerate mistakes - the mistakes of others, their own mistakes and those of the leader. On the other hand, we also need to set high standards for performance and hold people accountable for poor performance. Yet another paradox in our leadership dance: We have to find ways to lead our partners to excellence while understanding that they may make missteps along the way. Accountability and forgiveness - two challenging, contradictory, and essential skills we all need for the leadership dance.
*quote from Einstein's God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit, by Krista Tippett. I heard it this morning on Tippett’s NPR show ‘Speaking of Faith.’