Are You a Player or Conductor?

"Effectively delegating to others is perhaps the single most powerful high-leverage activity there is." - Stephen Covey

Effective leaders look at every situation through a delegation lens.


When challenges arise at work, they immediately focus on mobilizing people and leveraging resources to achieve their goals. Despite having the skills to complete most tasks, successful leaders realize they must build the capacity of others to undertake problems as opposed to tackling issues in isolation.

Leaders should think of themselves as an orchestra conductor. Although conductors are supremely talented musicians, playing an instrument is not their role. Instead, conductors must ensure a group of musicians with different responsibilities produce one cohesive musical product.


Effective leadership is about conducting rather than doing.


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During my first day as an assistant principal I was introduced to my secretary. After exchanging pleasantries I retreated to my office.


About five minutes later I asked myself: “So ... how exactly am I supposed to use my secretary?” I had never been in charge of other adults, let alone someone whose main purpose was to assist me with my work.


Beyond my first day of work, I have found the concept of shifting responsibility from myself to others to be among the steepest learning curves in my professional growth. Even when it is obvious I should not be doing a task, I still struggle to shift responsibility to others.


The more I mentor other leaders and speak to other bosses, it appears delegation is a universal issue. Whereas many leaders insist they are effective delegators, a close look at how they spend their time reveals many tasks that could - and should - be completed by others.


Why does delegation give school leaders fits? Here are three theories:


They don't know how: Most leaders simply have not been trained or mentored in delegation. When asked to reflect on leadership classes and mentoring programs, most administrators cannot recall spending much time on the topic. Despite its high-leverage potential, delegation is rarely a professional development focus.


They don't want to give up power: Delegating tasks often feels like giving up authority. For example, many administrators (myself included) love building the maser schedule and resist giving up this assignment. Unfortunately, managerial duties like scheduling should be delegated by leaders whenever possible.


They are too nice: When bosses identify low-value activities that should be delegated, they often skip these conversations for two reasons. First, leaders are concerned they will be viewed as "lazy" by transferring responsibilities. Second, leaders are nervous that re-assigning duties will create conflict with employees.


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There are countless "best practice" suggestions for delegation. Rather than take a deep dive into specifics, here is an easy rule of thumb to follow: The 80 Percent Rule.


This rule implies if you have someone on staff who can do a task 80 percent as well as you can, delegate it. Clearly, there are some tasks that only school administrators should do (e.g., employee evaluation, severe student discipline, etc.). However, in many other cases this rule of thumb should guide delegation decisions.


For example, for many years I loved getting up in front of staff and leading professional development. As a proud instructional leader, I found great pleasure in teaching staff how to improve instructional practice. But when I moved into superintendency, I quickly realized we had district employees who were very talented - at least 80% of my capabilities - at leading professional development. Although it was difficult to give up control, relinquishing those duties has allowed me to focus on reinforcing our district vision and core values during whole-group gatherings.


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Individuals who move into school administration quickly realize they have a lot on their plate.


Those who don't delegate get stuck in the details and create massive inefficiencies in their organization. Likewise, those who delegate build confidence in others and free themselves to do their most critical work.


Are you playing an instrument or conducting the orchestra?

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