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Marko Kruljac for Bornfight

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A post about delegation, responsibility and accountability

Cover Photo by rob walsh on Unsplash

My sister recently started taking her driving lessons, and I thought that this is an excellent metaphor to explain the topics from the title of this post.

How do driving lessons usually look like?
In the first session, the driving instructor will give you a theoretic overview of the car, its parts and all the other important things you need to know before driving. After that, he will demonstrate this theory in practice. So far in the process, you only absorb and observe.

But very soon after that, the student becomes the one driving the car on the streets. The instructor delegates the driving responsibility to the student. The student is now responsible for following all rules and regulations and to safely drive the car.

The instructor still shares the responsibility with you, as he has his own set of driving pedals in case anything goes really badly wrong, he can reach the wheel, he is watching the road with you, has special rearview-mirrors, etc.
It is your responsibility to drive well, follow instructions, yet the instructor is accountable for your driving actions, in case of an accident.
If you have an accident while driving, it is most likely because the instructor delegated too much responsibility too quickly. He is accountable for your failure.

This is exactly how a healthy team is structured. You have a team leader or manager, who delegates and shares responsibility with his team members. The manager is, like the driving instructor, accountable if anything goes wrong. If a team member fails in their responsibilities, it is most likely because the manager either was not clear with his instructions, delegated too much, too difficult or it could be many many other reasons. If you fail, the manager is accountable for this, and must find a way for you to succeed.

Responsibility is something to be shared, and delegated away. "Delegating is a gift with two recipients". One person receives extra time to do other work, while the other person learns something new and interesting, and grows in the process.

For example, you would never learn to drive a car, if you just watched your instructor do it flawlessly, if he never delegated the responsibility to you. Consequently, your team members cannot grow, if you have your hands on the wheel all the time.

It is only when responsibility is delegated, that a person can grow. This is really important to remember.

Delegating responsibility is the hardest thing in the world to learn and do well, but it is vital, both to the manager’s success and to the growth of members of the team. Be prepared to practice this a lot.

Accountability, on the other hand, is not transferable. It is a burden the leader carries for the team.
Giving praise for everything that goes well, and taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong – is the essence of leadership (as said by Dwight Eisenhower)

If you want to learn more about management topics, there is an excellent series of podcasts which you can find here. They have been producing brilliant content for the last 15 years, and many thanks to them for that!

As you become more and more senior, you will need to pick up on these skills. If you’re going for a engineering manager position, these skills will be your bread and butter, to the point that you will need to forget lots of coding skills. Be prepared to accept that.
If you’re going down the technical senior/lead/architect track, don’t think that you are off the hook. Mastering these skills is still a very important tool in your road to success.

Happy delegating, and keep on growing, both yourself and others.

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