[June 4, 2016] Between 1985 and 1986, unapproved sales of military equipment, mostly anti-tank missiles, were sold to the country of Iran. The sales were a successful attempt by the United States to free American hostages in a quid pro quo exchange; those involved however were accused of being in violation of U.S. law. Delegating authority was the key method of President Reagan’s getting things done and in late 1986 he put Peter Wallison in charge of cleaning up the mess. Wallison accomplished his task from the president.
“Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.” – Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S. President
Reagan’s leadership style was selecting good people, setting broad policy goals, and then delegating the authority to get the task done. By using this technique – commonly used among great leaders – he presided over one of America’s greatest economic and foreign policy successes of the 20th Century.1 To read about the detailed evidence on how Wallison did this, read the book Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of His Presidency.
Delegating authority is difficult for any leader but especially risky for senior leaders who often have little choice but to do so. Great leaders reduce their risks by employing follow-up and monitoring techniques to ensure their vision is being executed properly. Reagan did this by only utilizing the best people he could find and who he could trust. It’s no surprise that the quote above delivers Reagan’s leadership philosophy succinctly.
However, I will note that many managers and leaders are more interested in delegating “responsibility” than authority. I’ve personally experienced the negative consequences of those who assign tasks to subordinates and give them responsibility to get things done but fail to pass along the authority required to get things done. This is a very common methodology among managers and, although less common among military leaders, still practiced widely in most professional circles.
Delegating authority, when the right controls are in place, is the most effective and strongest method of getting things accomplished. It is a key characteristic of senior leaders who are the most successful.
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