Avatar photo

Peter Millett

Ambassador to Libya, Tripoli

Part of UK in Jordan

14th May 2014

Leadership: Delegate or Die

We all face information-overload.  How can the leaders of  organisations cope with the mass of emails, phone calls, meetings, video-conferences and other demands on their time?  And how can we manage our time while also making sure that we deliver results?

The answer is through delegation:  by pushing decision-making and implementation down to people who have the time and skills to get things done;  by not trying to do everything ourselves;  and by trusting and empowering our staff. 

Many managers don’t want to delegate: knowledge is power and decision-making implies authority and prestige. Such attitudes are self-defeating. Leaders who fail to delegate risk being swamped with demands, being unable to prioritise and taking bad decisions. Or even worse, decisions will be stuck in the bottle-neck of their in-boxes; or they will burn out from overwork.

So how can we as managers delegate effectively?

For a start, we need to set a clear direction for the organisation. What is the overall long-term strategy?  What are we trying to achieve?  And what do we anticipate will be the short-term steps we need to take and the resources we need to use to get there?

Once the direction is clear, there is a myriad of recurring tasks that can be left to others: detailed planning, negotiating contracts, taking tactical decisions, monitoring the implementation of projects, attending meetings, and dealing with customers.

For example, in an Embassy, once the Ambassador has agreed the priorities and objectives for the year, he or she does not need to be consulted over every step and decision to achieve those goals.  Indeed, when it comes to technical decisions on projects or on visas, the Ambassador should not be involved.

Successful delegation requires good communications. Leaders must clearly explain the strategic direction, the overall policy and the goals to be achieved.  They must also be clear about the standards to be met and the timetable for delivery. And they must be available to answer questions and clarify any points about which their staff are unclear.

Of course, communications must be two-way. Listening is a vital part of management and we must give our staff the chance to be heard. They know how things are done, can advise on the most suitable methods to get the best results and can flag up problems.  There should be no ‘Mushroom Management’: where employees are kept in the dark and have manure thrown at them from time-to-time.

Delegation also requires trust. The manager must trust the employee. And employees need to have confidence that their managers will back them if something goes wrong.  

Building trust means empowering people. To work, staff need the training, coaching and mentoring to make sure they have the skills and capabilities to get the delegated tasks done more effectively.

Delegation does not mean getting abandoning authority and accountability. The buck still stops with the boss. Blaming minions if mistakes are made is not only bad management; it will undermine good delegation in future.  In any case, mistakes should be seen as an opportunity for learning lessons, making changes and avoiding errors in the future.

On the other side of the coin, success should be celebrated.  The manager should thank the staff who delivered it and reward them.

These are all themes I will hear more about at our Foreign Office Leadership Conference in London this week when all UK Heads of Mission will be discussing  both policy and management issues. On return to Amman, I will share the lessons I have learned with the whole Embassy as a way to set a clear direction for the future and delegate tasks to achieve these goals.

Delegate or Die is maybe an extreme title. But if we don’t delegate, the volume of work and the speed of demands will surely strangle us.

2 comments on “Leadership: Delegate or Die

  1. Dear Ambassador,

    This is a very good article.

    I am a big fan of PRINCE 2 “Project in controlled environment” and one of the principles is to “manage by exception” which enables appropriate governance by defining distinct responsibilities for managing a project while clearly defining accountability at every level. This in essence allows for a lean decision making process while reducing the chance of a bottle-neck situation.

    Managers do not and should not have the time to be involved in every decision making process, this is very bureaucratic and often leads to micro management. Once a decision making process is defined within an organization, it is the leaders responsibilities to enable the creation and implementation of the systems needed for decision making rather making decisions themselves.

    Delegation is a competency, and only incompetent managers see it as a threat to their prestige and authority.


  2. Dear Peter , well ,there are once again 2 chapters in yr. new report which are remarkable to me. # 1 has to do with my own long lasting working experience for I can only full agree to yr. statement that a lot of high ranking managers just doesn ´t want to delegate a n y t h i n g – for they wanna keep all their knowledge “secret” – as long as possible. Plus allow me to add that ´s not only in combination with power and prestige. It ´s also an expression of an overblown (sorry) ego. You can read all the results word by word in this chapter .That ´s why it ´s so important to have (and to share !) this “clear direction” for my own part of work but also for the work of the entire team. In the airline – business we use to call it “Open Doors” policy. But there ´s also chapter # 2 – which causes a little bit of problems for me. I do mean if you ´ve once agreed to priorities or esp. directions in yr. Embassy in Amman for such a long time period (“1 year”) you might become problems just ´cause you will be often enough facing situations in 1 month or 2 of which it ´s t o d a y impossible to think and calculate ´bout them. Esp. if you ´re working in such a dangerous and sensitive area like the Middle East. To conclude : If you think that “Delegate or Die” might sound a little ” extreme ” – what about ” Delegate or Decline “?
    Best wishes and have a peaceful , relaxed eve, liebe Grüßle ond oin entspannter, luschtiger Abend, Ingo-Steven , Stuttgart

Comments are closed.

About Peter Millett

Peter arrived in Tunis on 23 June 2015 to take up his post as Ambassador to Libya. Previously he was British Ambassador to Jordan from February 2011 to June 2015. He was High Commissioner to…

Peter arrived in Tunis on 23 June 2015 to take up his post as
Ambassador to Libya.
Previously he was British Ambassador to Jordan from February 2011 to June 2015.
He was High Commissioner to Cyprus from 2005 – 2010.
He was Director of Security in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
from 2002-2005, dealing with all aspects of security for British
diplomatic missions overseas.
From 1997-2001 he served as Deputy Head of Mission in Athens.
From 1993-96 Mr Millett was Head of Personnel Policy in the FCO.
From 1989-93 he held the post of First Secretary (Energy) in the UK
Representative Office to the European Union in Brussels, representing
the UK on all energy and nuclear issues.
From 1981-1985 he served as Second Secretary (Political) in Doha.
Peter was born in 1955 in London.  He is married to June Millett and
has three daughters, born in 1984, 1987 and 1991.  
His interests include his family, tennis and travel.