Why are we reluctant to say, “You’re better at this than I am; please take over”?

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My son-in-law Jonathan is an amazing, competent man. He’s a board-certified emergency room physician, served as a lieutenant in the Navy for 18 years with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is an instrument-rated pilot, and a master sailor. In his spare time he’s completing his MBA degree.

Recently, he helped a friend (I’ll call him Bill) reposition his 20-ft sailboat from St. Thomas to Ft. Lauderdale. Because the boat belonged to Bill, he assumed the role of Captain.

Bill is a novice sailor, but knows that Jonathan is an experienced one. A few hours into the trip Bill made a bad call (contrary to Jonathan’s warning) that caused the main sail to rip. A few days later Bill stubbornly overruled Jonathan’s suggestion about a pump malfunction so for the rest of the trip they had no fresh water for bathing and cooking. 

The entire trip was a debacle. It didn’t end as badly as the first and final voyage of the Titanic—they made it back alive—but it was rife with problems and avoidable challenges.

The greatest frustration was not the mishaps—bad things happen. Exasperation peaked because the problems need not have happened. It was immediately apparent that Jonathan was the best sailor on board. Why didn’t Bill recognize his own incompetence and Jonathan’s proficiency? Why didn’t he say, “Jonathan, you know a lot more about sailing than I do—you captain the boat; I’ll report to you.” Jonathan would have enjoyed serving as Skipper.

When I heard this story, I asked myself, “In what areas of life am I struggling to perform adequately, and there’s probably someone close by who would gladly help and do better?”

This is a potent lesson for leaders. The key to good leadership is surrounding yourself with people who are better than you at certain tasks and empowering and supporting them. Leaders, you can’t be good at everything so don’t even try. Selecting and leading a team of competent and focused people is the key to effectively leading an organization. 

Without support from others, it’s virtually impossible to advance in your life and career. And studies show that most people are willing to lend a hand—if you ask in the right way. 

4 Replies to “Why are we reluctant to say, “You’re better at this than I am; please take over”?”

  1. Don, that is a good lesson for me. I try to do everything that comes along and I shouldn’t do that. You can learn a lot from an experienced friend if you just watch and listen.

    1. Bonnie, thanks for sharing your thoughts. You and I struggle with the same ailment – trying to do to many things ourselves. Don

  2. After watching my husband as a teacher/administrator, especially interacting with those above or below him, I believe a good leader lays aside ego. My guy is retired now, but he always hired good people and let them do their work. NO micromanaging! Sad to say, one pastor at a church and Christian school where we worked led by “bullying,” rather than listening, learning, and nurturing others. I think he lacked self-confidence, along with the humility that should mark a Christian’s life.

    1. Sharon, your husband was a good leader. Sorry for the challenge of working for a domineering pastor; that gets old quickly. Take care, Don.

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