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Don't be the Hero, be the Guide on the Side


Eric has just delegated an important task to Victor. He felt good about this. Besides, Jason Hunt has been telling him all about the importance of delegation for a while and he is happy to get a little off of his plate.

The job given to Victor was to change out all of the gaskets in the piping between the cooker (where the cheese was melted) and the casting line (where the cheese is poured out, cooled, and sliced). The timing on this was critical, as the line would only be down for the day. The next morning, the cheese production would start back up again.

Eric took the time to explain what the task was to Victor, he shared that the task needed to be done by the end of Victor's shift, and he described that a quality job would result in no leaks between the piping joints. Victor shook his head in understanding and went off to get started.

About an hour later, Victor returned. He had found the replacement gaskets but could not find the specialized wrench to loosen the joints.

"Dang!," Eric responded, "The wrench could be in a few places. Let me look around and get back to you."

Victor walked off to perform a few other duties and Eric got interrupted 3 more times in the next 20 minutes. Three hours later the thought flashed across his mind that he was supposed to find the wrench for Victor. He looked at his watch and realized that Victor's shift was ending in 10 minutes. So, Eric searched a few spots, found the wrench, and instead of having Victor do it, he replaced the gaskets himself, missing dinner with his family.

On his drive home, he thinks to himself, "That Jason is full of S***. Delegation does not save time!"


Through my work, I've learned that there are two major mistakes that almost every single new leader makes. The first is that you have to have all of the answers. This is false. Believing it will cause you to ignore the knowledge base of your staff and force you to make stuff up when you don't know. The other mistake is believing that you have to solve all of the problems. These new leaders believe that they can't delegate because it is their duty to take care of any issues that come up.

It's like they see themselves as a hero who swoops in whenever there is trouble. Their job is to save the day. You might be one of these wanna-be heroes, but you can't.

  • First, you're just not that good: sorry to break it to you, but you simply can't solve all the problems.

  • Second, if you try to solve all of the problems you're never going to have any time and you will continuously miss out on opportunities to train and develop your staff.

Instead of thinking of yourself as the hero, place your employees into the position of hero and you as the Guide on the Side.


Consider the role of hero and Guide on the Side in some popular movies. Certainly, Harry Potter receives all the accolades for defeating Voldemort, but could he have done it without Dumbledore? The same goes for Luke Skywalker and Yoda, Katniss and Haymitch, and Froto Baggins and Gandalf. In each of these, the hero is a person who has a challenge he or she cannot overcome by themselves. They also have shortcomings and character faults. The Guide on the Side helps the hero accomplish his or her tasks by providing guidance, boosting self-esteem, and seeing the potential that lies within the hero. Furthermore, the Guide on the Side never steps in and does the work of the hero…for that task is theirs alone.

As a leader, you are the Guide on the Side. Your job is to help your employees become the hero.

Let's relate this to parenting:

Several years ago, I delegated to my oldest daughter the task of setting the table for dinner. She readily accepted and started the project. After a few minutes, I hear a large crash, the sound of glass breaking, and a scream that would have even frightened the boogie monster. I ran into the kitchen to find her sobbing with two broken plates shattered across the floor.

Now, I could be the hero by grabbing her, carrying her to the couch, cuddling with her, and telling her that it is all going to be OK. "Don't worry, daddy will clean up the mess for you." Honestly, I'd go to bed thinking that the Dad of the Year Award is really going to be mine. However, this adds to my plate (which, now apparently is broken) and it sends her the message that anytime she screws up her dad will come and save the day. While I do want her to know that I love her and I will do anything for her, there is a better way.

Fortunately, both my wife and I were trained in the principles of Love and Logic. So, when I heard the crash, I came running in and said, with the greatest degree of compassion that I could muster, "Oh, bummer! What are you going to do?"

"I don't know daddy! I didn't mean to break them."

"I know honey. But you need to figure out how to solve this problem." Her tears started flowing a little faster at this.

"I tell you what. Would you like to know some ideas of what other kids have done in a situation like this?"

She nods her head up and down.

"Ok, I know some kids that will use their allowance money to pay their dad to clean it up. I know others that will promise their brothers to do all their chores for a week if they clean it up. I also know a few who will take that broom right over there and this dustpan and do their very best at sweeping up every single little chard of glass that they can find. Do any of these ideas sound like something that you want to do?"

She chose to clean it up and in a matter of less than 10 minutes, I had a happy, confident, and energy-filled little girl running around the house. You see, instead of being the hero, I chose to be the guide on the side and to help her be the hero.

I admit this is much more complicated with adults. For starters, you can't speak to them as I did to my 8-year-old. Furthermore, they are rarely as willing to jump in and solve their own problems.


What I've learned in my experience of working with people is that they are inherently lazy. If there is a path of least resistance, they are going to take it. This is especially true when you delegate a task to them.

Let's relate this back to the example at the beginning of this post. Imagine that Eric has a monkey on his back called "Gaskets." He also has several other monkeys on his back and he is having a hard time managing all of these monkeys.

So, he decides to get Gaskets off his back by passing this monkey off to one of his employees, Victor. He does so successfully and is relieved to have fewer monkeys on his back.

However, Gaskets seems a little too much for Victor. He'd much rather not have the monkey. So, he finds a reason to pass Gaskets back to Eric, confronts Eric with the issue and Eric gladly says, "Sure Victor, I'll take Gaskets the monkey back!"

Victor is very happy because he no longer has the monkey. Plus, he cannot move forward on this delegated task until Eric gives the monkey back to Victor. So, Victor casually finishes off his shift and goes home knowing that he got out of work, but it wasn't his fault because Eric never returned the monkey.

By chance, does this ever happen to you? How often are you taking the monkey back? Do you recognize that quite often this is just an excuse for the other person to return the responsibility of the task to you so that they can continue to live a life of ease?


As an uncommon leader, we must do all we can to resist the urge to be the hero. A powerful way to do this is through a tool I call Reciprocate the Responsibility. That is, when someone is approaching you with the monkey that you put on their back, refuse to take it back. Reciprocate the responsibility by providing the support they need to solve their own problems.

In the example above, instead of Eric saying, "Dang! The wrench could be in a few places, let me look around and get back to you," he could have said, "Bummer. There are several paces the wrench could be and I know you need this wrench to get your (keeps the monkey on Victor's back) task finished. Why don't you look in the tool cabinet in the east wing? Also, talk to John, he may know where it is, and if I were you, I'd also check near the shred machine, as they were having some piping issues last week."

Victor maintains the responsibility, Eric remains free of this task, and with a little luck the wrench will be found and the gaskets will be changed before Victor's shift ends. This is reciprocating the responsibility. You delegate to them a task, they want to return it to you, you refuse, and pass the task right back to them.

If you accept the challenge to reciprocate the responsibility a number of great things will happen.

  • First, you will have more time because you're not trying to solve all of the problems.

  • Second, your staff will grow and develop because they are learning how to solve their own problems.

  • Third, your staff will become more self-confident in their work.

  • Fourth, they stop coming to you with every problem because they know that you are only going to help them solve their problems, not remove them.

This truly is a win-win for everyone and it is critical behavioral action for uncommon leaders who want to develop their staff.

P.S. This works with people problems too! Instead of rushing in to make peace between two employees that aren't getting along, help them solve it on their own. Don't play mom or dad, going between each person to get all the details and to negotiate a solution. Either tell them to solve it on their own, or bring them in for an intervention. Sit both down, tell them they are going to have to solve this problem right here and now, and then give each person time to fully explain what is going on. You only ask questions, they do the talking and the solving. Keep this monkey on their back and you'll free up a lot of time.

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