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Wise Executives Are Willing to Share Power

September 01, 1985|JOHN F. LAWRENCE

"Just let it go until I get back."

It's vacation time so folks left back at the office are hearing that a lot these days from the person who usually sits in the private office. I've said it myself. It's one of the most pernicious phrases in the manager's lexicon.

Too often it means the boss figures he or she is the only one who can handle the matter. Quite apart from holding up progress, that leaves quite a message about what a manager thinks of his colleagues' competence.

Strange as it may seem, one of the more common failings of people in power is an inability to delegate authority. Oh, they may pass off a lot of work on others, but they tend to retain the decision-making.

Any number of factors may be behind this attitude, most of them based more on the boss' own problems than on anything wrong with the staff. It may stem from insecurity--such as a fear of having to account for mistakes. It may be a simple compulsion for work and an inability to disengage long enough to let others in on the act. It may be ego--a need to take credit for everything, or, as in the case of a division chief of an eastern company, a reluctance to create a strong No. 2 person who could threaten his indispensability.

Would Grab Credit

A vice president at one Los Angeles company tells of a boss to whom she often wrote memos suggesting ways to increase business. He would top them with his own name and pass them on up the line without ever mentioning her. Moreover, she discovered later, when a top-level policy committee decided she should attend some of its meetings, he went to some lengths to foreclose that possibility, saying he could represent her area.

Some years ago, Linda Grant and Lois Timnick produced a piece for The Times on what they referred to as "crazy" bosses, a rather amorphous group ranging all the way from real menaces who severely abused their employees to those who were just a little nuts. Some of the examples were extreme cases of the he-can't-delegate variety. For example, there was the division chief who often worked 18-hour days, started staff meetings at 2 p.m. and kept them in session until 10, and even with all that consulting, did everything his own way.

Craziness and cruelty are probably not that common. Just going off to the beach and putting a few things on hold doesn't seem that bad. But the problem is it's often part of a pattern. Some years ago, a young manager went into a branch office that wasn't performing well and turned it around practically overnight. When he moved on up the corporate ladder, however, that office again slumped. He had been too much of the show and didn't build in lasting strength.

Weren't Making Decisions

In another case, a charismatic department manager appeared to have a well-oiled machine around him until he left and it became clear that others in the department had deferred too much to his judgment and weren't making decisions they should.

In my own case, I recall my wife commenting pointedly after some long days, "How come you have to do it all. I thought you were in charge."

To an extent, it bespeaks an old style of management that's rapidly getting out of step with the times. Business schools are focusing some attention on it, and patterns are changing at a lot of companies.

The old style was reminiscent of the military--largely based on authority. In fact, D. Quinn Mills, a Harvard Business School professor who has written extensively on management, says World War II experiences might well have influenced corporate management style for much of the period since.

By contrast, he says, the new style manager is more aware of his own shortcomings, thus more willing to share authority. Since the people reporting to the boss may well be better trained and more qualified to handle tough problems, sharing is a necessity for the place to operate effectively.

Change takes time, of course, and human nature being what it is, it's not surprising to keep reading of the one-man shops that turned into huge successes only to founder because the one person who started it still tries to do it all, even with scores of people around to help.

So the next time the boss says to just let it go, try asking if you should just take a vacation, too.

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