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How To Avoid the Delegation Trap

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Some of the most powerful speeches of the last century were delivered against the backdrop of war, or the prospect of it. Lincoln at Gettysburg, Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor Address and Churchill’s ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches” to name a few. The prospect of victory, or defeat, was very real for the audience, and the speaker. When a senior leader has the power to communicate a compelling story, people can be moved … to think, to act, to follow, to change. But good storytelling alone is not enough.

“Churchill wrote his own speeches. When a leader does that, he becomes emotionally invested with his utterances. If Churchill had had a speech writer in 1940, Britain would be speaking German today.” – James C. Humes, American presidential speechwriter

In times of great change, authenticity of message and ownership of change will make the difference between victory and defeat. Whether that change is a prime minister’s resolve to lead the country into war, or a CEO’s decision to introduce a bold new strategy, or announce necessary layoffs.

Each organization’s most senior leader is ultimately accountable for everything that happens in their business. But they are not always responsible, nor should they be. There are many important activities that leaders can, and should, delegate to capable people on their teams. Change is not one of them. The leader must visibly own the change, and feel ultimately accountable for its success in order for change to occur.

In today’s complex corporate structures, the temptation to delegate change is understandable. There are whole teams dedicated to project management,  human resource leaders skilled in organizational design and consultancies specializing in cultural transformation. And yes, the best leaders leverage these skills and capabilities as they lead their organizations through change to the future. But they do not delegate the most important elements.

CEOs should be primarily accountable for two important business drivers that are essential elements in change: their organization’s purpose and values.  The trap in delegating change leadership is the emotional distance it creates between the leader and these two key drivers of transformation. For change leadership, each step away from the most senior leader on the organizational chart means less focus and urgency when it is needed most.

Leaders should see change as their charge precisely because it both impacts purpose and values and is driven by them. Leaders should spend time building the case for change, pausing regularly in the construction of it to ask: why, in the context of our purpose, is this change necessary? Which of our values and beliefs will enable this change? What in our purpose and values must be protected during this change and how can we best accomplish that? The leader must genuinely ask and answer these questions for themselves and their organization before sharing her message with her team.

When change becomes a corporate initiative, it is doomed. When a leader truly believes in the case for change, and is personally invested in it, real transformation can occur.

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