[May 30, 2019] I grew up in the Deep South part of the United States. As a kid, my biggest fear was getting bit by a Water Moccasin snake1 and eaten by an alligator. One of the first scary films (I cannot remember the name) I saw as a kid showed a man falling into a pit of alligators somewhere in Africa. To me, the expression up to your neck in alligators has an additional, more emotional meaning.
Leaders often find themselves surrounded by ‘alligators.’ It is easy to be overcome by the many miscellaneous and marginal issues, worries, problems, or tasks; so much so that a leader can lose sight of the mission. I’ve found myself in this position many times. Too many things to do and not enough time is a common barrier to leader success.
This situation can see rightly judged as a failure of leadership. A leader who is being overwhelmed is also a leader who has not properly delegated work, prioritized tasks, or given clear guidance. As an Infantry Company Commander, my unit regularly succeeded in external evaluations, but I was personally admonished for being a micromanager (an insult if there ever was one).
“I trust the people who are working for me. I delegate.” – Mario Draghi, Italian economist and President of the European Central Bank
My boss told me that I took on too many of the junior leader tasks that should have gone to my subordinates. It showed a lack of trust in their abilities and lack of respect for their rank and responsibilities. At the time, I thought to myself that this was a bunch of garbage, but later I understood.
It’s very instructive to realize that, as a leader, you cannot do everything. A leader needs to delegate, find the experts, and who is good at a given task, and consult with them. A big part of responsible leadership is knowing when to take something on and when not to.
In the U.S. military or any large organization, if you cannot delegate by the time you’re a junior leader, you will not make it. Watch out for the alligators.