Sunday, April 29, 2012

Delegation - A Story of Flagpoles

One of the most important functions of a manager is to facilitate the so-called process of delegation - this is defined and discussed in the online resource “Management Study Guide” at 

“A manger alone cannot perform all the tasks assigned to him. In order to meet the targets, the manager should delegate authority. Delegation of authority means division of authority and powers downwards to the subordinate. Delegation is about entrusting someone else to do parts of your job. Delegation of authority can be defined as sub division and sub allocation of powers to the subordinates in order to achieve effective results”.

Despite the simplicity of the concept of delegation, it is one of the most difficult management functions to balance effectively.

The two extremes of management style are:
  1. The micro manger – he or she does not delegate and prefers to perform all the tasks personally. This can be a sign of distrust in the ability of the subordinates. By using much of the available time in performing subordinate’s work, the micro manager does not give enough attention to the big picture that can languish as a result. 
  2. The hands-off manger – he or she is interested only in the big picture and is not greatly concerned with supervision of the subordinates work. The quality of this will often suffer as a consequence.
Most managers fall somewhere in between and it is one of the most difficult tasks to find the right balance – a balance that will vary in each type of corporation.   

I learned a very valuable lesson on delegation when I was in the military – we were performing aptitude tests for officer potential and one of the problems we were given went like this:

Task: You are to erect a flagpole 100 feet high.
Personnel: You have at your disposal a platoon– 1 sergeant, 3 corporals and 3 sections of soldiers, 10 in each section.
Equipment: There are three lengths of rope provided, each of which is 200 feet in length. The rope cannot be further subdivided. You also have 3 sledgehammers and 3 steel pegs, each two feet long.
Describe how you would erect the flagpole.

My solution was probably the most common one suggested from individuals in the group. 

“After tying the three lengths of rope to the top of the flagpole, each section of men, under supervision of the corporals, then marches outwards to form an equilateral triangle – with the flagpole at the centre. The sergeant would then supervise the hoisting of the pole and driving the pegs into the ground at the right positions.   
My solution to the flagpole problem
(Click to enlarge)

Several other methods were suggested, all containing various degrees of complexity and practicality, but none described the solution the Army was actually looking for - which was simply this. 

You issue the following order  – “Sergeant, have the men erect the flagpole”.

This is a perfect example of delegation. To attain the rank of Sergeant in the Australian Army, you have to be a very capable and practical individual, well able to solve problems of the flagpole type. The Sergeant can therefore be entrusted with the task, leaving you, as the officer, free to engage in other work.

Above: One of the world's tallest flagpoles, located in Amman Jordan. It is 126.8 m (416 feet) tall.  (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

This principle can be carried across to all corporations, but if you can’t trust your subordinates, it can mean that there are problems in the recruitment or promotion system within your organisation. Or it can mean, that as a manager, you will have to learn to trust others – one of the most important assets of leadership, both in the military and in civilian life.


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  2. This is a great history of flagpoles. Thanks for sharing this to us.

  3. This is indeed a great post about flagpole history. Thanks for sharing this to us and keep posting.