A few years ago I succeeded Superman in a job. As you can imagine following the Man of Steel was really hard.
I took over as the chief of staff for an engineer unit, and my predecessor had done an amazing job at running the unit. He knew everything about the maintenance, logistics, personnel, and administrative systems, and he knew how to leverage those systems to keep the organization going. It was, frankly, intimidating thinking about how much I had to learn.
Fortunately, I have a staff around me that will help me figure it all out, right?
Well, sort of… there were people assigned as staff officers with responsibility for those areas. That’s not the same thing as having a fully functional staff.
One of the first meetings I got to attend in my new position was the budget meeting at our higher headquarters. I called in the budget officer and asked him to bring me the books so we could review them before the meeting.
The budget officer told me he’d be happy to come over but that he didn’t have the books. “They’re in your office. Your predecessor did the budget himself.”
The next meeting I attended at my higher headquarters was the maintenance meeting. So I called up the maintenance chief and asked what time he wanted to leave to drive over to the meeting. “Oh, I don’t go to those meetings. Your predecessor handled those himself.”
The same thing happened at the supply, admin and personnel meetings. Superman had personally taken on so many tasks that the staff was unprepared to do them.
Superman routinely worked 15+ hour days, and was the master of details. He was tireless, smart, driven, and effective. He nearly single-handily made that unit a success.
I am far too lazy to do all that. I’ve got a wife and kids I wanted to see periodically. I have a few hobbies I’d like to pursue. I don’t want to live at work. Besides, if I’m doing all the work, what are we paying all these staff officers to do?
I spent the next year helping those primary staff officers build capacity and expertise in their areas. We learned together, and established systems that didn’t require superhuman abilities to maintain.
In fairness, when Superman started the job he didn’t have a staff to delegate to. He had to recruit a team and get the staff established. In the mean time he was forced to do all the staff functions himself. The flaw, if I can call it that, is when he missed the moment when he could have let some things go.
Superman is not alone in highly capable people who do too much. Rubbermaid’s 1980s CEO Stanley Gault was by any account a tremendous talent, returning shareholder value at 25% per year. Yet the minute he walked out the door in 1991 the stock plummeted. Some folks blame his successor, but a deeper look reveals how much Gault took on himself, and how unprepared other leaders were to actually perform their duties once he was gone. Superman propped up a system that collapsed the minute he left.
Leaders have responsibilities beyond day to day operations and determining asset allocation. Leaders must develop their subordinates to act in their absence. If they truly care about the organization they want it to succeed far into the future, not just when they are there.
I was taught as a young officer that one of my jobs is to make my job irrelevant. Not in a “I gave away all my work so I don’t have to do anything” sort of way. More in a “this place functions really well whether I am here or not” way. That means you train and empower your folks to think critically, learn constantly, and act boldly with or without your presence. That means you have to delegate meaningful work and empower your folks to succeed or fail, and then help them learn from both.
Defense Secretary James Mattis once said that you have to delegate to the point that you are uncomfortable. If you’re not nervous about how much you’ve let go of, you haven’t let go enough.
To do this, you have to learn to truly trust your people. Too often, leaders say “people are our most important asset” and then fail to show trust in them. If they are your most important asset, you should treat them as such.
Superman can do awesome things, and can achieve tremendous results. But long-term, sustainable success comes from teams of great people trained and empowered to do their best.
If you find yourself working 15 hour days and your organization can’t function without you, you may be Superman. You may also be what’s holding your team back.
Hire great people, and invest in them. Develop them to do their job well, and prepare them for their next one. Learn to trust your folks, and learn to let go.