Three’s Company: A Discussion on Delegation Styles

All student leaders join organizations with a mission; that is, with a set of tasks they must accomplish, and generally with another set of tasks they aim to accomplish but do not need as an entity. The completion of these tasks will almost always require the time and effort of more than one person—and, even in situations where one person alone could fulfill the tasks, effective management of responsibilities exponentially expands any organization’s horizon of possibilities. What, then, does “effective management of responsibilities” mean? The processes by which we assign responsibilities for action items can broadly be classified into three methods: individual assignments, meaning one person takes on the task; team assignments, wherein multiple people collaborate to produce a result; and what I’ve dubbed “free reign”, in which assignments are laid out but left on no one particular individual’s shoulders. All three methods have their benefits and drawbacks, and I believe that student leaders wishing to more effectively delegate tasks must understand the pros and cons of all three to develop a model that will work for their organization.

In some ways, individual assignments- perhaps the most intuitive way to delegate responsibilities- is also the most effective. Individual assignments make complete sense for some organizations: for example, in Dance Marathon, we break from the highest levels down into 7 different departments. I, as part of the Finance Department, have very little knowledge of what’s going on in Entertainment, or Operations, or Catering; however, the model works because our purposes rarely, if ever, overlap with their purposes. And, in this way, we are able to more effectively accomplish our own tasks. Additionally, it emphasizes individuals take responsibility for the success or failure of projects. For example, within RUDM, I am the Assistant Director of Student Fundraising. This means that every program we run that goes well. I can take credit for; conversely, when something goes wrong, I have nowhere to point the finger.

(A lone ranger much like myself in action.)

However, when issues already exist within an organization, splitting up tasks in this rigid manner can cause those issues to grow much worse. Two examples of this phenomenon are in communication and in team spirit. Say, for example, someone on the Catering Department wants to purchase food for an event we’re having, but doesn’t talk to the Finance Department first and overspends their budget. The lack of communication was a problem even before the departments split—however, when individuals were left to their own devices, the problem came to the forefront. Additionally, in situations where individual credit and individual blame can be assigned, our selfish desires can sometimes kick in. It sometimes behooves me, as someone trying to move up in an organization, to cause something to go wrong for your department. To combat this, organizations must constantly remind their members of the mission. At Dance Marathon, we end every e-mail and every meeting with the acronym “FTK”—For the Kids. I know that every member of Dance Marathon understands the importance of our mission, and for this reason know that we are not going to fall victim to this issue.

The second method by which to delegate is to assign projects to teams of individuals. This model helps to address some of the issues above, but also provides some of its own. The two situations listed above—lack of communication and what I consider “hyper-accountability”—are addressed, because individuals are on the same page through the whole process and know that they will collectively bear the responsibility for failure and the credit for success. This model, however, faces the “weakest link” problem- a team is only as strong as its weakest link. Along with that, if teams are too large, the individuals in the group may feel unimportant and tune out. This is a substantial problem. As our readings on the Relational Leadership Model illustrate, leadership is inclusive—it is meant to encourage others to recognize their contribution and celebrate it, not to belittle it and have it lost in the group. Additionally, as we see in readings related to the Cycle of Decline, it is difficult to find A-level contributors if they do not feel as though their engagement is contributing to personal growth for them as well as organizational growth and change. For these reasons, the team model is best suited for usage in a situation where individuals’ commitment has been previously displayed, as well as situations where individuals are not likely to tune out or feel that they are unwanted. This is, for example, the general idea behind the Executive Board model most organizations use.


(The Boardroom: the natural breeding ground of the Executive Board.)

The third model, which I have dubbed the “free reign” model, has the power to both propel organizations to new levels and to sink organizations completely. This structure relies on individuals volunteering to take on projects that no one asked or instructed them to. It can, when done properly, encourage individuals to take projects in completely new and interesting directions. For example, when we read about Google, many of their best ideas came out of their “20%” time; their one day a week in which they were allowed to work on whatever they wanted to. This model is in that mold. Additionally, this model can promote individuals who take initiative and make them feel as though they make a difference; this was an important part of our readings on leadership being inclusive. The RUSA Allocations Board has recently begun a project called Project Midas, in which we look to provide truly innovative enhancements to our campus and to Student Life. This is a prime example of “free reign” leadership, because we do not (and, frankly, cannot)  force innovation in any way- however, in some ways, the benefits that come out of this project will be far more substantial than the result of any of our individual roles.

However, this lack of structure can also discourage participation, especially by those who are new to the organization. This spontaneous adoption of responsibilities can, to the untrained eye, reflect anarchy; and, not seeing a clearly defined role for themselves, they can give up on an organization that would have been a positive interaction for both themselves and for the organization they looked to join. And, of course, the moment no one chooses to pick up a mandatory operation for the organization the organization’s machinery will grind to a halt- and this will undo all the good work everyone else in the organization has done. For this reason, it may make more sense to understand this model not as a model of many individuals, but as of one large team; and the “weakest link” are all those who fail to complete the necessary task.

As a conclusion, then, what can we say? Looking at this model, we see the basic model for organizations outlined. A strong, team-focused leadership, with individuals responsible for smaller portions of the organization, with an understanding that any individual is free to  push change. I believe that as student leaders, we should consider our specific models of delegation and ask if there is a better way to manage the responsibilities that we must seek to complete. I believe that, when we see that there is a complex interplay of positives and negatives throughout these different styles of delegation, we will also notice that there are practices we do not currently incorporate that we potentially could- practices that would benefit our organizations, the members that make it up, and the mission it seeks to accomplish.

(Everyone’s gotta buy in!)

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