LT Will Spears is an active duty submarine officer. After a brief stint as an enlisted Electrician’s Mate, he attended the Naval Academy where he graduated in 2008 with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. He deployed to the Western Pacific aboard the Fast-Attack submarine City of Corpus Christi, and is now attending the Naval Postgraduate School in pursuit of an MBA. He writes the Junior Officer leadership blog JO Rules.  

One of the most important things a leader does is to decide on the proper distribution of responsibility between subordinates. Genuine responsibility is a painfully finite resource; there’s only so much of it to go around. We have to invest it carefully, assigning responsibility not just in order to get things done well but also to develop our people. When the especially tough jobs come around, it is tempting to regularly default to our proven achievers because we can rest easy knowing they’ll do a good job.

This isn’t the way to build a resilient team. Saturating our performers with the important jobs isn’t just abusive to our best people, it also deprives our second string of the precious experience that could bring them up to full potential. Sadly, zero-defect organizations tend to encourage exactly this kind of weak leadership.

Ironically, this unfortunate practice isn’t really an avoidance of risk. It is really just a transfer—the risk of a near-term but manageable setback is exchanged for the long-term risk of an unforeseen, catastrophic failure. A highly capable and empowered body of mid-level subordinates is the primary line of defense against such calamities. A leader who doesn’t take chances on his second string is actually provoking disaster by betting that he’ll never need them. It’s like refusing to take any money off the table after winning in Vegas—it might work for a while, but eventually, you will lose. It is terribly risky.

Getting a Better Return on Investment

So, there’s only so much responsibility to go around, and we have to invest it and budget it carefully. Is there any way we can increase our return on a small investment? You bet there is.

In the financial world, the practice of assuming additional risk in order to amplify return on investment is known as leverage. Leverage got a bad name in 2008 when, like a myopic leader, Wall Street bankers kept replaying their winning formula until it failed in a big way. Leverage isn’t always evil, though, and it’s instrumental to the modern economy—any small business that took out a loan to expand has profited through leverage. Anyone who hopes to succeed in business must learn how to prudently apply it without overreaching.

In leadership, trust is analogous to financial leverage. By giving someone free reign to exercise their judgment in the management of a given responsibility, we cultivate the immensely powerful quality of ownership, maxing out the developmental payoff of the responsibility we have invested. This enhanced return comes at the cost of exaggerated consequences for failure, but that’s the price of doing business. It is a calculated risk.

Sometimes we get burned. We have to be ready for it—when we take a chance on an unproven junior, we’re still on the hook for the deliverable. We’ll never be able to eliminate risk (nor should we try!), but we can soften the blow with buffers and backup plans. More important than physical preparation, though, is that we are psychologically prepared. Disappointment is inevitable, so when taking chances we have to ensure that we are cognitively aligned to learn from an injury instead of allowing it to cripple us. If we’re going to lead, we must both develop and protect our ability to trust.

“Success teaches nothing. Only failure teaches.”
-Adm. Hyman G. Rickover

In order to grow, our developing juniors need meaningful opportunities to fail. Without real consequences for failure, they won’t have the true experience of responsibility; they’ll just have a title. Without the latitude to make decisions, they’ll just have work to do. Truly investing in player development requires acknowledging that not all failures are catastrophic, and that some hits are worth taking.

It’s All about the Long View

The missing piece in bad investment and bad leadership is usually a proper appreciation for time horizon. What’s best for next week isn’t necessarily best for next year. Taking prudent chances on people isn’t just about being a bold or inspiring leader; it’s about sacrificing the tactical to protect the strategy. The ability to think and act strategically in the face of immediate demands is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.