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Critical Thinking

Real Leaders Are Hands-On

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Two of the most defining characteristics of any leader are how effectively they delegate and how hands-on they are when they need to be. It should come as no surprise that executives and business leaders rarely excel at both. After all, they do appear to be somewhat mutually exclusive.

So how do we reconcile this apparent paradox: two leadership requirements that seem to be at odds with each other? As you’ll see in a minute, they’re actually two sides of the same coin.

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Take President Obama and his signature healthcare legislation, for example. Whether you lean right or left, you’ve got to admit, the Affordable Care Act is a pretty big deal. ObamaCare is the most important initiative of this administration. It is Obama’s baby, and not just in name.

And yet, its rollout has been nothing short of disastrous. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius tried to duck the mounting criticism by likening ObamaCare to an Apple product launch. Flawed as that analogy is, it holds the key to resolving this leadership dilemma.

If you haven’t read Fred Vogelstein’s gripping account of the creation of the iPhone and what it was really like inside Apple from the product’s conception in 2004 to its improbable launch in 2007, you should. What Apple managed to pull off – in about the same amount of time the government had to implement ObamaCare – was every bit as remarkable as the product itself.

But it never would have happened if Steve Jobs hadn’t been as hands-on as he was. Make no mistake: no company could have developed and implemented so many breakthroughs in a single product, and made it mass-producible, without a remarkably strong, driven, and yes, hands-on leader.

Now, that might lead you to conclude that Jobs wasn’t much of a delegator. That what Obama lacks in follow through, Jobs lacked in delegation. That they’re equally flawed leaders, if not at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I often refer to Union Square venture capitalist Fred Wilson’s view that “A CEO does only three things: Sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders. Recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.”

Notice the word “delegate” does not appear. While CEOs must effectively delegate responsibility to those talented individuals they hire, there are times when they need to be hands-on, as well. When their vision is to change the world and everything is on the line, great leaders find a way to deliver. They get the job done no matter what. They don’t let anything stand in the way.

It’s true that nobody likes to be micromanaged, but that issue tends to evaporate when you’re part of a team working together to, as Jobs once put it, “make a dent in the universe.” I’ve worked with CEOs like that before and, if you share their vision, you have no problem with there being all-hands-on-deck if that’s what it takes to make it happen.

Steve Jobs was a great CEO and a great leader. He had a powerful vision. He recruited and retained the best talent. And he put more money in the bank than anyone has. And yet, when it came to realizing his vision, to actually accomplishing what’s never been done before, he knew that, sometimes, his inimitable presence made all the difference.

Ironically, President Obama had a similarly powerful vision at the outset of his first term. Granted, “Hope and Change” is more than a little amorphous, as I think many have come to realize, but one thing’s for sure: The folks who supported him were hoping for things to be different in Washington.

Unfortunately, when it comes to implementing his vision – whether it’s the people side or the financial side – the president has been ineffective. That’s because delegation and hands-on leadership are two sides of the same coin. They’re two aspects of the same key leadership trait, and that’s holding your people and yourself accountable for getting the job done.

As economist Ben Stein put it on a Saturday talk show, “[Obama] doesn’t really like to do work. He’s a talker, he’s a preacher, he’s a guy who can get people worked up, he’s an excellent campaigner, but … he’s not much of a doer, and he’s not a hands-on guy. And I think also he does love this idea of plausible deniability because it ties in with his basic laziness.” Enough said.

Whether you’re an aspiring leader or you’ve been at this a while, don’t get caught up in the false paradox of delegation versus hands-on. If you’ve got an easy job to do, by all means, delegate, go home early and play some golf. But most of us don’t have that luxury. Not in this world.

If your vision is to lead a winning team in this competitive world, then you’ll have to delegate to the talented folks you hire and work hand-in-hand with them when needed. You’ll have to be adept at doing both. In this world, that’s what it takes to win.

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