What The Leader Can't Delegate


Empowerment and delegation are leadership necessities. Every great leader practices them. But there are things the leader cannot pass to others. President Harry Truman illustrates seven things the leader cannot delegate.

Seven things the leader cannot delegate:

1. The long look

Leaders look ahead. It is their job to eye possibilities and challenges further down the road.

As difficult as it was, Truman ordered the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, in part, because he saw it would save more lives than would have been sacrificed in a land invasion. When WWII ended and the cold war began, Truman saw the best way of dealing with the rising threat of communism was "to rebuild Europe, rebuild it economically, rebuild it culturally, rebuild it politically, and make it part of the alliance."

Truman took the long look. Great leaders do.

Question: Do you schedule time to look ahead? You can consider the next step to achieve your vision, examine potential opportunities and threats external to your organization, asses what to do next in light of cultural, economic, and societal forces, as well as evaluate your team strength or "next great hire" to get where you want to be.

2. The responsibility to make decisions

Harry Truman stepped into the Oval Office at one of the most challenging points of history. David McCullough writes:

With Truman's presidency in 1945 came the advent of nuclear weapons and the Cold War, the creation of the CIA, the National Security Council, a burgeoning Defense Department, NATO, and a fearsome, stepped-up arms race with the Soviets.

Each of these challenges necessitated multiple decisions.

As Truman saw the presidency, the chief responsibility was to make decisions.
— David McCullough

Reflecting on the presidency, Truman would would write that there was no end to the "chain of responsibility that binds him, and he is never allowed to forget that he is President." As McCullough notes, "Problems and decisions of every conceivable variety wound up on his desk, as did criticism and blame."

  • The decision to drop the atomic bomb. 1945
  • The decision to integrate the military. 1948
  • The decision for the Berlin airlift to aid Western Europe. 1948-1949
  • The decision to go to war in Korea. 1950
  • The decision to relieve General Douglas MacArthur from duties. 1951

Truman reflected on the myriad decisions that fell his way. At his farewell address to the American people he said,

The greatest part of the President's job is to make decisions--big ones and small ones, dozens of them almost every day. The papers may circulate around the Government for a while but they finally reach this desk. And then, there's no place else for them to go. The President--whoever he is--has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job.

Question: Do you have a decision-making grid? If not, consider these seven questions from executive coach, Gary Cohen.

3. The care of his/her own soul

Interestingly, for all the pressure Truman endured he always found time to play Poker. You may be thinking, "WHAT?!"

Truman understood what all great leaders do, that all work and no pause is a recipe for leadership failure. Truman said about Poker that it was

my favorite form of paper work

As McCullough notes, "It took his mind off other things more than anything else." Truman also took time for morning walks, always moving at a brisk 120 strides a minute. These practices -- the exercise and the fun -- were two ways that Truman cared for his own soul.

Jesus said to his disciples, "Come away and rest for awhile." He was helping to care for their souls, but the disciples still had to yield to that admonition. Wise leaders do.

Question: What practices do you maintain that help refresh your life and buoy your soul?

4. The hard conversation

Truman traveled seven time zones for his first meeting with General Douglas MacArthur, a mere one hour and thirty-six minute conversation. MacArthur, a national hero could be an imposing force even for a president, but Truman needed that interaction to gain clarity on the Korean War (and to bolster his political fortunes back home). When it came time to fire the general for insubordination, Truman made the decision, issued the communique, and relieved General MacArthur despite a storm of criticism for this move.

Dean Rusk wrote, "I am convinced that 95 percent of Truman's decision to fire MacArthur hinged on the relationship of the president as Commander in Chief to his general and on civilian control of the military."

Principle, principle, must always be above personality and it must be above expediency.
— Dr. Duncan E. Littlefield

Leaders are driven to the hard conversations by principle. One of those principles is the "danger of inactivity." Proverbs 27:12 says, "A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences." Truman saw the consequences for the nation and the presidency if he refused to act by removing Douglas MacArthur. Consequently, Truman made the decision and had the "hard conversation" with the general.

Question: Is there a "hard conversation" you need to have in the area of vision, personnel, strategy, or that relates to the culture of your organization? Who do you need to address? Why? What will you do?

5. The waves of popularity

When I read David McCullough's biography of Harry S. Truman, I penned these words in more than one place, "Leaders must ride the waves of popularity."

At one point in his presidency Truman saw his approval ratings drop from 80% to 32% in one year's time.

Look at little Truman now
Muddy, battered, bruised—and how.
— Chicago Tribune

Truman, the man ridiculed battered and bruised in 1946, was also the man celebrated for "saving the free world" in 1947 and 1948.

A leader's popularity is going to rise and fall. Some days you are never good enough, other days you are superman minus the cape. One reason for Truman's stability as the waves of popularity rose and fell was Truman's ability not to confuse the work he did as President with who he was as a person. The office was his work, not his identity. He was always Harry Truman.

One of the great advantages Christian leaders possess -- though they may not always embrace -- is their essential identity as beloved children of God. Paul, early leader of the church, wrote, "When Christ who is your life appears..." Christian leaders are always responsible as leaders, but their ultimate approval rating does not come from their performance, but that of Christ who died on their behalf and calls them his beloved no matter their effectiveness or popularity.

Question: When is it most difficult to separate who you are from what you do?

6. The heat

When Truman was sworn in as President after the death of FDR, he said, "Boys, the weight of all the planets and the worlds has just fallen on me."

To his daughter Margaret, Truman wrote, "No man in his right mind would ever wish to be President if he knew what it entailed."

Aside from the impossible administrative burden, he has to take all sorts of abuse from liars and demagogues. . . .The people can never understand why the President does not use his supposedly great power to make 'em behave."

On more than on occasion, Truman muttered:

It sure is hell to be President.

Truman took the heat when he fired the immensely popular General George MacArthur for insubordination. In The American Spirit, David McCullough writes,

Outrage in the country was stupendous. MacArthur was an authentic American hero, the greatest American of his day, many passionately believed, and who was little Harry Truman to bring him down. The answer, of course, was that Truman was president and in time the country would come to see he had done the right thing, even in the face of seeing his popularity plummet.

Leadership is taking the heat for decisions, but also for failures, frustrations, setbacks, delays, and

7. Their own morale

Dean Acheson served as Secretary of State under Truman. To Acheson, "The President's supply of vitality and good spirits seemed inexhaustible" and were his "priceless gift."

Leaders cannot serve well wearing a frown. That does not mean to wear the mask of a happy face, but it does mean to manage one's own morale.

“Gentlemen, enlisted men may be entitled to morale problems, but officers are not. I expect all officers to take care of their own morale.
— General George Marshall (Truman, 560)

Leaders manage morale and build optimism by staying rested and by leaning on God's power. God promises to make his strength perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). They manage their morale by staying close to morale builders; not "yes men," but those who believe in them and want the best for them. Leaders manage morale by taking appropriate breaks, by reading deeply, and by recognizing that while the cause they serve is vital, they they themselves are not indispensable.

Leaders manage their morale by remember that for any problem they face, "God is bigger than that."

Question: How is your leadership morale? What are you doing to build your own morale? What needs to change?

Empower and Delegate, but . . .

Were you to join President Truman on one of his early morning walks and ask him about delegation, I suspect he would have some golden nuggets of wisdom to share. Simply watching him, his life speaks. It says, "Share the leadership load. Empower! Delegate!" It also clearly communicates that there are some things we cannot assign to others. Some responsibilities are the leader's alone to bear.

Reporters Bert Andrews and Jack Stone, writing in the New York Herald-Tribune said the central question surrounding Truman "was whether the President would grow in office." He did, and he did, in part for what he did not delegate. Now, the same question can be posed to you, "Will you grow in your office of leadership?" It depends on what you will and will not delegate.

Is there some aspect of leadership that you want to delegate, but know you must not? What is it? What will you do about it -- today?


  • ""to rebuild Europe, rebuild it economically . . ." from Tom Brokaw, "Harry S. Truman" video on the Dean Acheson page. www.history.com. Accessed May 15, 2018.
  • "With Truman's presidency in 1945 came the advent of nuclear weapons ..." from The American Spirit, 73.
  • "As Truman saw the presidency . . ." from The American Spirit, 73.
  • "chain of responsibility that binds him" from Truman, 480.
  • "The greatest part of the President's job . . ." from "The President's Farewell Address to the American People," January 15, 1953. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/. Accessed May 14, 2018.
  • "my favorite form of paperwork" from Truman, 511.
  • "Come away and rest for awhile" is found in Mark 6:31
  • "I am convinced that 95 percent of Truman's decision . . ." from Truman, 855.
  • "Principle, principle, must always be above personality . . ." from Truman.
  • "saving the free world" from Truman, 554
  • "I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” Harry S. Truman, April 13, 1945.
  • "No man in his right mind . . ." from Truman, 618.
  • "It sure is hell to be President" from Truman, 510.
  • "It took his mind off other things more than anything else." Truman, 511
  • 120 strides per minute from Harry S. Truman by Margret Truman, 441.
  • "When Christ who is your life" is found in Colossians 3:4
  • "Outrage in the country was stupendous. . ." from The American Spirit, 75.
  • "The President's supply of vitality . . ." from Truman, 560.
  • "was whether the President would grow in office" from Truman, 492