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Why smart coaches (and bosses) embrace delegation

Source | LinkedIn : By Matthew Syed

Delegation will be the big idea in sport in 2017. It is already familiar in the military, where in a number of seminal examples, such as the leadership of General Stanley McChrystal in Iraq, a willingness to push authority down the chain of command helped to transform performance.

Why was delegation so crucial in Iraq? Well, the forces on the ground – eyeball to eyeball with Al Qaeda – had context-rich, real time information that leaders back at base cannot possibly keep up with. If a decision to deploy against a rapidly-moving target has to go up and down the chain of command, the response-time is too sluggish.

Moreover, as responsibility increased, so the troops became more responsible. Instead of trying to get their hands on crucial assets, or hogging them, they started to share. They realised, as McChrystal put it in his book, Team of Teams, that “it would be used in a context even more critical than their current situation.”

In other words, as they were handed more responsibility, the troops became more adaptive, more aligned and more invested. The General was still in charge, and had to make big strategic calls, but the power was distributed in a way that made success far more likely. Indeed, the number of raids against the enemy “sky-rocketed” to 600 from an initial number of just 18, with a higher proportion of those raids successful.

The problem in, say, football is that players are given minimal responsibility. They are treated like infants. Team talks involve managers dictating tactics to the players, who are expected to mutely obey. When it comes to training and rehabilitation, the same logic applies. The bosses (coaches) tell the players what to do. There is no interplay, no sense of ownership.

This danger with this approach is simple. If the opposition team scores early on, or if their tactics are different to what was expected, the players have to adapt. They have to be able to make decisions; they have to step up. It is not good looking over to the coach on the touchline, however much he gesticulates and waves his arms around. Like in Iraq, waiting for orders from on high is too slow and inefficient.

Think about what happened when England conceded against Iceland in the European Championships. Did the players take responsibility? Did they demonstrate leadership on the pitch? No, they looked at the coach, then at each other. Deprived of responsibility all their lives, positioned as labourers who merely follow decisions, they were unable to make any decisions for themselves.

Innovative sports coaches have already started down the route of rational delegation. Danny Kerry, coach of the gold-medal winning GB women’s hockey team, allowed players to decide on when they train each day, codes of conduct, and they elect their captain through a vote. What happened? The players developed leadership qualities, and felt far more empowered to make big decisions on the pitch.

Eddie Jones, the England rugby coach, has become interested in the idea of “growth mindset”, trying to ensure that his players are willing to take responsibility for their actions, rather than making excuses when things go wrong. Saracens, the club team, has a series of leadership events for its players, including getting them to think for themselves. Great coaches are not threatened by players with leadership qualities; they welcome them.

Delegation is not a recipe for anarchy, but – if done judiciously – for a stronger and more supple chain of command. As the world becomes more complex, and as it changes ever more rapidly, it is imperative that professionals have the leadership qualities to make decisions. This is as important in sport as in the military, and has big ramifications for businesses, hospitals and schools, too.

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