Lesson 13: If someone can do a job as well or better than you, ask him or her to do it.

This lesson is simply about delegating. Although the concept is simple, it turns out that it is easier to talk about delegating than to do it. This is particularly true for perfectionists. If you are the type of individual who requires everything to be perfect, you will have problems with this lesson.

Perfectionism is not an unusual trait among professional people. All professionals are proud of the work they do. Each professional, early in his or her career, thinks they are in control of every aspect of it. Later on, we, the professionals, find ourselves less in control then we did previously as our lives become more complex. A transition in our thinking has to take place.

Perfectionism unfortunately will get the forensic pathologist into trouble. The doctor who insists on taking his own photographs, making his own labels, making his own incisions, and doing his own eviscerations will become overwhelmed. Frequently, necessity causes many of these compunctions to disappear when the doctor finds himself faced with a 7-autopsy day. Unfortunately, some never make the transition successfully.

An element of judgment is required to discern what is important and what is not as important, what is essential and what is not essential, what must be done by the doctor and what can be done by others who are not doctors. Hopefully, a fellowship training program teaches the pathologist to use that judgment so that he or she is able to work efficiently and still work effectively. Hopefully, the deputy medical examiner learns to rely on others to help him or her with the heavy autopsy load—by taking the photographs, doing the eviscerations, opening the head, making the labels, and so on.

Then, when the deputy medical examiner makes a transition to become a chief medical examiner, a whole new reliance on others begins. Now the new chief has to rely on more people and is in less control of his or her work product than before. Now, other concerns such as the budget, the building, the personnel, the policies and procedures, the security and safety of the office, and relationships with others outside the office become concerns. The chief knows he cannot do everything by himself, yet it is hard to know what tasks should be delegated and what should not. Also, it is hard to ask others to do what you are capable of doing for yourself.

Stephen Covey describes the maturation process with the terms dependence, independence and interdependence1. As infants and children, we depend completely on our parents and other adults to supply our needs. As we grow, we become independent adults who learn how to survive. Independence is important to achieve as a successful adult; however, the greatest achievements come through interdependence. They come when we learn that we cannot do it all ourselves. We must rely on others for great achievements, and we need to learn to do so effectively.

When confronted with any task as a chief medical examiner, I asked myself, “Do I need to do this, or can I find someone else to do this for me?” As the title of this lesson suggests, not only could I frequently find someone who could do the job for me but also that person could frequently do the job better than I could. Perhaps this is humbling, but so what? In the end, this is not about me. This is about doing the best I can and providing the best possible service for the people I serve.

Please do not misunderstand me. You should not allow others to practice medicine or do autopsies if they are not licensed to do so. When delegating, the job should always be appropriate for the individual’s training or licensing. The job should be appropriate for the individual’s pay grade.

What if the person you turn to in your office cannot do the job as well as you. I would argue that you should still let him or her do it. How is anyone going to learn to do anything if you never delegate? Isn’t it time to teach those who come after you how to do the work so that they can carry on after you are gone?

There are many reasons to delegate your work—not only for your benefit but also for the benefit of those who work for you and even others.

Delegating helps you focus on the big picture. You are the designated leader and visionary. How can you think about the big vision when you are thinking all the time about the fine detail? Is it wise to be consumed with the urgent and neglect or forget the future and direction of the office? Obviously this is a rhetorical question, but the answer to it may not seem obvious to some. Of course you have to focus on the big picture! That is what you are paid to do! You must happily let loose of the fine detail for others to work out.

Delegating gives others an interest or stake in what goes on in the office. You should not let those who work so hard for you feel shut out of the process. Allowing others to have delegated authority and responsibility energizes them and allows them to perform at a level that even they had not foreseen.

Delegating develops the talents of those who work for you. It is a marvelous thing to see talents previously hidden blossom in the lives of those who work for you. Why deny yourself and the office the benefit and the pleasure of seeing this?

Delegating allows the work to be done better. You may be a perfectionist, but you will never do something well if you are overwhelmed.

Delegating allows more creative solutions. Each of us tends to look at problems and issues from a fixed point of view. Allowing other points of view allows the possibility of finding creative and effective solutions to problems.

Delegating also helps you during a disaster. You may, for a while, handle most of the office matters, but what happens when a disaster strikes? What if a major explosion, building collapse, or airplane crash provides numerous dead bodies to recover, identify and examine? Your capacity to handle the situation is then greatly exceeded. If you had not delegated heretofore, you would find yourself in serious trouble.

I recall visiting Dr. Charles Hirsch, the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City, shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack destroying the World Trade Center towers. We had provided an investigator from our office to help in their recovery efforts. To thank us, they gave a few others from my office and me a tour of their morgue facility, particularly the temporary morgue set up to deal with 9/11. When I sat down to talk to Dr. Hirsch, I asked how it was possible for him emotionally to handle such a horrendous event. How did he cope?

Dr. Hirsch told me he did not worry. He knew he could rely on the capable and qualified people in his office to assist him with this incredible task. He did not feel alone or overwhelmed.

Should a disaster arrive in your jurisdiction, you want to feel the same calm assurance and peace. You want to feel that the people you trained, encouraged, and relied upon during more peaceful, less turbulent times will be able to step up and support you during a disaster. You will have that assurance if over time you let others to do the work that they can do as well or better than you.

1 Covey SR. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.