Delegating: Down and Up

Leaders of Christian schools give assignments to their staffs. They assign teachers to teach, principals or teacher leaders to manage affairs within a building, counselors to counsel students, custodians to clean schools, etc. In the smallest schools, leaders may do some of the jobs themselves and assign very little to others. The most common synonym for assign is delegate.

Delegating Down

Generally, leaders delegate to subordinates: those beneath them on the organizational flow chart. Most management charts in Christian schools show the school board at the top (up); underneath is the head of school, and beneath that are subordinates (principals, vice principals, teachers, assistants, etc.). The person at the top delegates down.

For many leaders, delegating responsibilities to others is a blessed relief from trying to be all things to all people. These leaders spread leadership around, emphasizing an almost flat structure, sometimes called “servant leadership.” It is as if the leader is saying, “I trust all of you to do your assigned tasks; I am here to support you in those tasks. I delegate all these tasks ‘out’ to you.” Other heads of schools delegate very little, believing as heads of school that they are completely responsible to the board for every aspect of the school and fear being held accountable for some aspect of the school that is poorly supervised.

PassingTheBaton300x200A mentor of mine in leadership advised me, “Be careful in delegating. Once you give the responsibility to someone else, you will have a hard time taking the responsibility back without seeming as if you trust no one.” In schools that follow the Carver model (the head of school is responsible to the board; all other employees are responsible to the head of school), the problem of delegating down or outward is risky. This kind of leader needs confidence and courage, like Nehemiah in planning and carrying out the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple.

Delegating Up

Recently I read an article online about delegating up, a surprising direction for delegation. Delegating up can be both attractive and dangerous for leaders of schools. For example, George is inexperienced as the head of school; he serves a strong board. He’s nervous, doesn’t want to rock the school boat, and wants to please. George responds to hard issues in the school by repeatedly acting out, “Let the board do it.” He delegates up and down. He’s the busy intersection traffic director, pointing one issue to the building principal or the admissions person, delegating down. But he also sends other issues such as the need for a new bus or a proposal for a clearer policy on homosexual behavior to the board, delegating up.

It’s a tempting practice, because it frees George from making decisions that might be rejected. But remember, the board hired him to not only research issues but to also to make recommendations. In my experience, the more leaders delegate up, the more the board fills the vacuum by handling these issues themselves and eventually losing confidence in their head of school. In the example, George flees his responsibility as leader under the false belief that delegating up wins him mutuality with everybody.

Delegating Well

Delegating well starts with being strong. Paul lists the gifts in the body of Christ, saying about leading, “…if it is to lead, do it diligently.” In delegating, it means being careful, consistent, patient, but also decisive. It means holding accountable those delegated to tasks, including the leader her/himself for assignments from the board.

Check out Jethro’s advice to his son-in-law Moses in Exodus 18. Moses was wearing himself out (v.17) in leading. Jethro tells Moses to “select capable men…who fear God…trustworthy men…and appoint them as officials” (v. 21). But here’s the clincher: Jethro tells Moses he should have the judges “bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves” (v. 22). The bottom line is that heads of school need to delegate wisely but also to stand strong in deciding the tough calls. That’s being a true servant leader.

– Dan Vander Ark

1 Comment

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One Response to Delegating: Down and Up

  1. Jacob Bush

    This is quite a relateable article as I often find myself in-between the various groups that pull my attention. I didn’t look as delegating up as a weakness, but I see where that can lead. I am already thinking of things that I should pull back into my own realm so that the tough decisions can be made and evaluated. As a leader, I believe it is important to get the input of others, but I see where the inclusion of them in the decision may have crossed that line. Thanks for the wonderful article!

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