Delegation into united or divided teams

Not long ago a group of promising leaders at a hospital explored the role of delegation in leadership. In the discussion they encountered the issue of whether they preferred to delegate tasks on a major project into a team that was united in its pursuit of that project or into one that had evident divisions over it. Such a project might be a building expansion, the development of a significant new program, or the adoption of a broad new policy or strategic position in the community.

The conversation was utterly fascinating. Chances are good that you’ll see points you’ve already thought or are in the process of formulating.

There were those that maintained it was necessary to have your team united before you could begin delegating tasks and duties. Otherwise, they said, it would be almost impossible to know if the work parceled out would be done correctly or with the proper spirit. The early stages of the project should allow for the shake-out of divisions and the crystallization of consensus around moving forward.

Not so, said the other side. By emphasizing unity over division, the leader risked losing out on creative input from dissenters. These folks frequently invoked the word “diversity” in this part of the discussion. Division, to them, appeared to signal the presence of diverse opinions, beliefs, mindsets, and methods. The quality of the project might be undermined by the absence of diversity.

Which side do you support in this discussion?

Both sides agreed that agreed that a “line” existed, a point in time at which unity would be necessary and division no longer accepted.

Several things occur to me here. First, you need to define what drives the setting of the line. Is it the project deadline or something else? Second, your approach to leadership will have influence your position on unity/division. If you enjoy the give-and-take of debate, you’ll lean toward permitting division. If not, the other direction will be the one you tend toward. Third, the stakes of the project will also influence the decision. The higher the stakes—and probably the riskier the project—the less likely you might be to tolerate division. Fourth, this will be a true test of how much you trust in your team and have faith that things will turn your way.

The stimulus of this discussion was Harry Truman’s efforts to recognize a Jewish state and homeland in 1948. George Marshall, Truman’s Secretary of State and probably the most valued member of Truman’s team, vigorously dissented from the evolving decision to embrace a Jewish nation. This was all the more perplexing to my participants because Truman continuously reinforced Marshall’s position of prominence on his team, both before and after the decision to recognize in May 1948 what became Israel.

This unity/division issue in delegation is among the most compelling in the real world of leadership. For all the talk and chatter about consensus, sometimes elements emerge that transcend it in importance. Furthermore, this issue points to the importance of building a team identity that can withstand such pressures. As we see so often, leadership is frequently more about the followers than the leader.