Lessons of leadership delegation by a US Navy Captain - Destroyer Cannon

Lessons from a NAVY Captain about the Delegation of Leadership.

One of the most effective tools for energizing your team is delegation of leadership. 

Maybe it is the MOST powerful.

Listen to “Sense of Ownership at Work – The Essential Lessons from a Destroyer Captain to Startup Founders” on Spreaker.

And, while it may appear to be a simple concept, delegating well and effectively necessitates true leadership. Delegation entails handing over some of your power to get the job done while also empowering those around you.

It is something between a skill and an art. A skill that I don’t dominate yet. That is why I looked for brighter minds.

So, what does a US NAVY Captain have to teach us about delegation? Let’s go over some context and the key steps to find out.

This article is just one of a series of business lessons (including negotiation skills for business) for entrepreneurs from legendary experts. For the next articles, remember to subscribe (for free!) to my list here.

How I found myself struggling to learn delegation at work

I spent the majority of my professional life working in multinational headquarters. Companies where you don’t have much skin in the game, as Nassim Taleb explains.

All of this changed in 2017 when I launched my first business in the tourism industry. As with any first-time founder, there were challenges with funding, setting targets, and establishing challenging-but-realistic goals.

Problems that have already been discussed in several places.

But, once your business is up and running, entrepreneurs are haunted by a ghost. An issue that is rarely discussed, and with me, it was no different: the overwhelming amount of responsibilities that often lead to burnout.

Delegation of leadership in the US Navy

The effort to delegate tasks isn’t just a problem for business owners, entrepreneurs and managers.

Consider the responsibilities of the commander of an Arleigh Burke destroyer in the United States Navy. With a crew of nearly 300 people and responsibility for a war machine costing more than a billion dollars, any captain must know a thing or two about delegation.

More than that, one of these captains wrote a book about his experiences called. Michael Abrashoff, the author, is the former commander of the USS Benfold.

He assumed command of the ship at a time when the crew was demotivated and performing below expectations. In only three years, he transformed the Benfold into one of the best ships in the entire US Navy. They even won the Spokane Trophy, which is awarded to the most capable ship in the US Pacific Fleet.

In this article, you will see some of the insights from Abrashoff, as well as from my own experience as a business owner and other entrepreneurs.

Delegation for managers: why you MUST learn it.

Managers are frequently hesitant to delegate. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that a manager must do everything for the work to be done well. It might also be interpreted as a symptom of immaturity.

To delegate is, in fact, a hallmark of leadership.

Delegation is the act of transferring responsibility for outcomes as well as the authority to carry out the necessary actions to achieve the intended results.

Delegation entails effectively leading your team and enabling them. Managers who do not delegate run the danger of not being in their position for long or being less likely to be promoted.

As explained by Insperity, new managers may lack confidence in directing people or believe that they are the only ones who can do things effectively, especially if they were promoted to the head of a department where they previously worked.


Because it is simpler for someone who has been with a company for a long time or who has a strong knowledge of the job to maintain control and “get it done well” rather than hand over the reigns to someone else.

But is it effective?

Often not!

It is an unavoidable fact that one person cannot do everything. Attempting to do or micromanaging too many things results in exhaustion, poor quality, and missed deadlines, not to mention time management issues.

That is why effective managers (think about Jack Welch-style of management) are skilled delegators.

But not all delegations are the same. It happens on different levels, and in different steps.

More about leadership and delegation you can discover in our list of books recommended by Jeff Bezos.

Picture to illustrate Lessons from a NAVY Captain about the Delegation of Leadership.
Lessons from a NAVY Captain about the Delegation of Leadership.

The levels of delegation

Peter Economy (also known as the leadership guy) once wrote for Inc.com that effective delegation happens in 5 levels:

1st Level—You give the employee the authority to assess and report

The first level of delegation is the collecting of information and analysis of an opportunity, issue, or problem. For example, you could ask staff to investigate a company issue, ending in the preparation of a report. It’s up to you to decide if reports should be verbal or in writing. When distributing a work at Level 1:

  • Set expectations with your employee — what is a satisfactory delivery?
  • Clearly define the task.
  • Explain his role as well as your own, and
  • Discuss deadlines and milestones.

2nd Level— You give the employee the authority to recommend a solution.

In level 2, while employees are still responsible for Level 1 work, they will be expected to also explore possible solutions and recommend — and justify — the best one. Review various solutions, test the quality of the advice, and then make the decision on how to implement it. As with Level 1, you should let staff know what you have decided and how you arrived at those judgments.

3rd Level — You give the employee the authority to develop an action plan

By the time employees reach Level 3, they should have effectively mastered the abilities necessary at Levels 1 & 2. Level 3 delegation contains the broad recommendations given in Level 2 while adding the development of a particular action plan to implement the recommended solution. 

4th Level—You give the employee the authority to make a decision

Before moving employees on to Level 4, you need to be fully satisfied with their accomplishments at Level 3. If staff graduate to this level too soon or are not completely up to speed, you may find yourself micromanaging their job, which undermines your own efforts in delegating. 

  • Make sure they know that they know you are available to train and encourage them, but you expect them to act autonomously.
  • Be ready to reward exceptional outcomes.

5th Level— All the previous authorities + assess and report

Full delegation means that you completely give the job to your employees. You can even make yourself distant from the business with no big issues. Level 5 delegation requires staff to make decisions all the time. When you’re ready to fully let go of your job:

  • At this level, people should know that they can make decisions, act, and follow through on them.
  • They should report back to you ONLY if there are exceptions or unique problems. They should be fully responsible for making sure all the rest gets done. 
  • Employees who reach Level 5 on multiple tasks should be promoted, and get a raise as well.

Check also: Negotiation Skills for Business: The Greatest Tips from a Former FBI Negotiator

Create a sense of ownership in employees

If your company is still slim, this is one of the simplest aspects to implement.

However, if your organization already has hundreds of collaborators with extremely particular tasks, it will be more difficult. While specialization has benefits such as professionals with superior task knowledge, it also lessens the sense of responsibility for the entire process.

Captain Abrashoff at the USS Benfold was faced with a difficult task once. It was challenging to persuade specialized sailors, such as those in charge of the ship’s boiler, cook, or weapons room, that not only their sectors but the entire ship were their responsibility.

A lack of ownership leads to a slew of other issues, such as the vexing blame game, in which one department spends more time blaming others than seeking collaborative solutions.

How did Captain Abrashoff instill a sense of ownership in his crew?

First, by rotating individuals between departments and getting a greater grasp of the overall vessel. You can’t have a sense of ownership over something you don’t understand, and rotating personnel across departments remedied this problem.

Department rotation improves inter-departmental understanding, bonds the team, and reduces the blame game.

Along with department rotations, he began to praise entire teams, from top to bottom, when a good task was completed. And, perhaps most importantly, give his workers more independence by trusting them to solve problems at the moment. As he reportedly told one of his colleagues, “I should be called only in situations that put lives at risk, could injure others, or resulted in significant expenditures.”

A sentence like the one above inspires people to be their best selves. During the early stages of my firm, I was plagued with calls many times a day, even on holidays or medical leave. It just felt like I was in some kind of prison from which I couldn’t get out.

Then I realized that one of the remarks I told to everyone I hired was, “If you have any problems or doubts, please phone me.”

It was very foolish of me to say that.

If an employee has a problem to solve, they should not call their boss. First and foremost, they must attempt to fix the problem! 

The newcomer should still be able to phone someone if all alternatives don’t work, but it should not be his first impulse. If they are calling you at every obstacle they face, you are doing a terrible job as a manager.

So, instead of telling my workers to call me if they have an issue, I began to tell them to try to solve it first, unless it is something really out of their reach.

Just keep in mind that when people try to solve a problem, they are bound to make mistakes. Make sure not to chastise someone who makes a mistake when they’re trying to solve a problem because that will make them less likely to try new things.

How to recognize good employees and prepare for “What If” circumstances

There are two methods to kill an organization’s proactivity.

The first, as previously said, is to punish people for making mistakes while attempting to solve problems.

The second mistake is to overlook spontaneous and beneficial initiatives.

Many managers and business owners do not use positive reinforcement. Myself included. And this isn’t because we don’t know how to do it or don’t realize the benefits. It is simply because we are frequently secluded within our offices.

When you stroll around and see everyone working and taking positive action, you will naturally recognize their good performance. Unless they are doing a poor job, however even in this instance, walking around and observing the process helps to spot weaknesses and modify the process.

This is the role of a leader.

Positive feedback boosts one’s self-esteem. A skilled and self-assured crew will handle complexity more effectively. The essence of good leadership is positive, personal encouragement.

Don’t be disconnected. Don’t be the type of boss who never leaves his desk. A personal complement is preferable to a written memorandum.

If you notice that you have underperformers when walking around, devise a plan to increase their performance. Clarify what they need to correct and, if necessary, train them. Set improvement goals for them, together with the expectations and repercussions of meeting (or failing to meet) those goals.

When your business is already running smoothly in ordinary scenarios, begin working with several What-If scenarios-the worst ones.

Prepare ahead of time for unexpected occurrences. This will shorten your response time for emergencies and minimize scenarios when you are summoned simply because a disruption occurred and no one was prepared for this eventuality.

All the Hows of a First-Time Business Owner: There is a thin line between bankruptcy and the freedom to be an entrepreneur
An idea for a present for yourself (or to any entrepreneur).

Conclusion: How to delegate at work

Delegating of leadership comes naturally once you:

  • have built a sense of ownership in your team by acknowledging their daily triumphs and outcomes,
  • created the habit of strolling around, observing how they can handle their own tasks, and,
  • recognized good performance and boosted your team’s confidence, self-esteem, and sense of what is a job well done.

You’ll feel at ease trusting them in your absence, and they’ll be eager to take on new challenges.

They may even request additional responsibility. That will be a win for all sides.

Once you’ve reached this point, you can take some time off knowing that your staff will manage everything efficiently, in addition to establishing solid systems to absorb the many What-If scenarios.

This article is just one of a series with lessons learned from leaders of different areas. For the next articles, remember to subscribe (for free!) to my list here.

Check also:

The Ancient Art of Finding Business Mentors over a Cold Beer

The 5 Imperatives of All Business Survival Strategies

Best Books for Young Entrepreneurs in 2022 [Must Read!]

8 Time-Tested Business Lessons for Entrepreneurs from a Celebrated CEO

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Levi Borba is the founder of expatriateconsultancy.com, creator of the channel Small Business Hacks and the same website for Small Business Owners, and best-selling author. Subscribe to my articles (for free) and receive (also for free) the ebook “The Blueprint for First-Time Business Owners”.

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