Delegation: A Core Leadership Skill : Journal of Public Health Management and Practice

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The Management Moment

Delegation: A Core Leadership Skill

Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH; Murphy, Susan A. PhD, MBA

Editor(s): Baker, Column Editor: Edward L. MD, MPH

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Journal of Public Health Management and Practice 28(4):p 430-432, July/August 2022. | DOI: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000001545
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Currently, as discussions about the “Great Re-set” and “the Great Resignation” are occurring in most workplaces throughout the world, many public health team members are wondering what is next for them. Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers are seeking a workplace where they can reconnect, thrive, and grow. Employees want to find meaning, belonging, personal growth, and career development at work. Great leaders can seize this moment in history and use tools such as effective delegation to engage the minds and hearts of employees. By creating a workplace culture that embraces coaching, mentoring, and career development, employees will want to grow their careers there.

In prior Management Moment columns, we have described certain core leadership skills such as listening to understand1 and asking better questions2 that can enhance workplace culture. These and other leadership skills can and should be developed if the leader/manager is to practice effective leadership behaviors. As these skills are developed, leaders grow in their ability to influence others and to foster alignment toward a shared goal. In this column, we offer a set of guiding principles and best practices3 related to the process of delegation—a core leadership skill for public health leaders—which is often underutilized.

What Is Delegation?

Delegation can be defined as a process by which a leader transfers responsibility for successfully executing a task to another person or persons.4

What Are the Benefits of Effective Delegation?

In addition to enhancing the overall performance of a team, group, or organization, delegation can play a crucial role in staff development.3 By delegating the execution of a task to another person, that individual is presented with a growth opportunity to enhance their skills and competence in a specific arena. In doing so, that person may enhance their sense of self-confidence, which then carries over into other situations. Along these lines, when a leader delegates an important task to another, the leader is sending the message that the team member is valued and respected. By delegating an important task, the leader can also foster greater alignment and commitment to the overall goals of the organization.

What Is the Difference Between Delegating and Dumping?

Delegating is a powerful skill for leaders that can increase employee engagement and retention. Dumping has the opposite effect and can create negative outcomes, disengagement, and turnover of employees. Delegating involves assigning tasks and responsibility to others and giving them authority and control to make decisions. Dumping is quite different. It involves assigning uninteresting tasks or grunt work to others without the authority to take control of the process. Giving responsibility without authority becomes dumping and leads to frustration, dissatisfaction, and turnover.

What Are the Barriers?

Often in the public health workplace, leader/managers may feel that they would rather “just get something done” than try to explain how to do it. This tendency has been apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic after long work weeks and months, with high stress and high levels of uncertainty. Some may feel that since they know best how to get the job done “right,” they should just do it themselves. In addition, managers may be reluctant to delegate to team members who themselves are also overloaded with work demands. Leaders may not trust team members to execute a task to the level that they feel is required. Unfortunately, some insecure managers may feel threatened by talented team members who may outshine the manager on projects. This type of thinking can damage the workplace culture and stunt the professional growth of team members. Another barrier is when leaders may not know how to delegate having never been exposed to sound practices in delegation. Therefore, a few suggestions may be in order.

Starting the process: Analyzing the task for delegation

Since the process of delegation consists of linking up a team member with a specific task, the leader must first analyze the task at hand before engaging with the team member. In doing so, certain questions should be addressed:

  1. What are the task and scope of the task?
  2. How complex is the task?
  3. What will success look like if the task is successfully completed?
  4. What barriers are likely and should be anticipated?
  5. What resources and enablers will be needed?

A major source of frustration for all concerned can be a failure of the leader to paint a very clear and detailed picture of what success should look like. The leader must be very clear about their expectations (not just what they hope for) if the process of delegation is to succeed.

Selecting a team member

Once the task is clear in the mind of the leader, the next step is to select the team member (or members) with the appropriate skill set necessary to successfully achieve the task. In doing so, the leader must evaluate the team member with respect to their skill as well as their will to accomplish the goal. In other words, the leader should determine the level of competence of the team member with respect to the demands of the task as well their level of motivation to succeed:

  1. Does the team member have the expertise (technical and otherwise) to succeed?
  2. Does that person have the experience with similar situations that have fostered their understanding of what might lie ahead and what they will need to do to succeed?
  3. Does that person know how to communicate progress and request assistance and feedback?
  4. Does the team member have the mindset, the skill set, and the tool set to succeed?

Beginning the process of delegation

Once the leader has developed an understanding of what success should look like and has identified “a good fit” in a well-qualified team member, the process of delegation can begin. As noted earlier, the leader must communicate verbally and in writing “what success will look like.” The leader must communicate why the task is important in the broader context of the organization's goals. In what ways will successful task completion be of benefit to the team, group, or organization?

Specific time frames and resource needs should be defined and addressed. Obstacles to be overcome should be identified (eg, sources of resistance to change or organizational politics that could thwart change) and strategies to address these obstacles should be developed by the team member and the leader. Furthermore, a clear understanding of the process of communication should be achieved. For example, how often will a progress report be given? Should it be in writing or in person or both? What happens when the project hits a roadblock? What are the milestones to be met and how will they be communicated and celebrated?

Dilemmas and pitfalls

Leaders are faced with the dilemma of how closely or loosely to be involved in a delegated project. Although the standard advice of avoiding micromanagement is true, there are no easy ways to know how involved to be. The level of development of the team member along with the difficulty of the task will vary in ways that will determine the timing and nature of involvement by the leader.3 Other pitfalls include inadequate resources, failure to measure progress along the way, and failure to celebrate “small successes” to maintain momentum and positive energy. It is best for leaders to describe what they want to see as the outcome and then let the person to whom the task was delegated figure out how to get there. In other words, do not tell the team member how to do something; just be clear on what you want the outcome to be. General George Patton warned, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”3(p147)

Situational Leadership Model

In the Situation Leadership Model developed by Hersey and Blanchard,3 the authors describe a continuum of leader behaviors, which includes delegation as one of 4 styles. The first, “directing,” consists of the leader exerting the greatest level of control and involvement by telling the team member what the result should be and then exactly how to achieve the goal. This style is suggested in situations where the team member is new or may not be highly motivated. The second style, “coaching,” entails a greater degree of interaction and engagement such that the leader may engage in a 2-way communication to identify the best way to reach the goal. The third style, “supporting,” tends to move in the direction of seeking the input of the team member regarding the best approach to the task. Finally, the “delegation” stage of the model suggests a more “hands-off” posture on the part of the leader. The process of delegation may include each of these 4 styles as tools that the leader may employ depending on the skill and will of the team member, which may evolve over the course of the project. The project context and external pressures for project completion and quality considerations may also influence the choice of leadership styles as the project unfolds.

Learning and Celebrating

The delegation experience can present learning opportunities for both the leader and the team member. If things go well, the leader can promote inquiry into those critical success factors that contributed to a positive outcome. One can even maintain a “delegation diary” to evaluate this practice and to record successes and areas for improvement.3 If things do not go according to plan, one can also learn from the experience by taking time to explore what happened and what might have been done differently. By seeing the experience as a learning opportunity, the professional growth of the leader and the team member can be fostered. In many cases, celebrating at the end of a successful project can be useful. Even if things do not go according to plan, one can celebrate the learning that did occur.


Delegation is a core leadership skill. This skill, like other leadership skills, can be practiced and developed over time. Effective delegation can be an integral part of the organization's approach to workforce development in that the process can contribute to the enhancement of the competence, confidence, and commitment of the team. Furthermore, effective delegation can benefit leaders by enhancing their own skill set toward better team engagement. An important side benefit may be to lighten the load for overworked public health leaders who face unprecedented demands stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic5 and other pressing public health challenges. Finally, improved practice of delegation can contribute to enhancing organizational performance as public health leaders seek to promote and protect the communities they serve.


1. Baker EL, Dunne-Moses A, Calarco AJ, Gilkey R. Listening to understand: a core leadership skill. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2019;25(5):508–510.
2. Baker EL, Gilkey R. Asking better questions—a core leadership skill. J Public Health Manage Pract. 2020;26(6):632–633.
3. Murphy SA. Maximizing Performance Management—Leading Your Team to Success. 2nd ed. Englewood, CO: Medical Group Management Association; 2016.
4. Landry L. How to delegate effectively: 9 tips for managers. Harvard Business School Online blog. Posted January 14, 2020. Accessed March 1, 2022.
5. Baker EL, Murphy SA. Conducting successful virtual meetings while managing COVID fatigue. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2021;27(2):208–212.
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