Stealing People’s Decisions Is Wrong: Subsidiarity and Leadership

Clement Atlee, who succeeded Winston Churchill as prime minister of the United Kingdom at the end of the Second World War, was notorious for his reliance on clichés and platitudes in his discourse. For example, when Atlee was questioned why he largely remained silent at the Potsdam post-war conference with the Soviet Union and the United States and allowed his foreign minister Ernest Bevin to do all the talking, he had an answer ready.  “You don’t keep a dog and bark yourself,” he explained, “and Ernie is a very good dog.”

The proverb “Don’t keep a dog and bark yourself” dates back to 16th century English literature and is a succinct way of articulating the principle of subsidiarity.  Although the principle itself can be traced back to the Middle Ages, it was introduced in a formal way by the Catholic Church in the 19th century. A 1931 encyclical by Pius XI stated, “It is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do” (Quadragesimo Anno, 1931, no. 39). In other words, the state should not do what the family can do just as well or better. And a manager should not do what a subordinate can do just as well or better.

In the simplest terms, the principle of subsidiarity teaches that, whether in government, business or any other realm of human collaboration, matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized authority. One writer on the topic uses the example of a commercial kitchen where you will find a head chef, an assistant head chef and all the sous-chefs who are each in charge of their own areas of expertise.  Without a question, the head chef is the leader of the team, but subsidiarity (and common sense) requires him to consult the sous-chefs on their area of expertise.  For example, she writes, “if he plans to serve lamb chop as a main for the dinner menu, he needs to consult with the sauce chef on what’s the most suitable sauce to go with this cut of meat.” Application of subsidiarity “prevents the stress of micromanaging on the part of the head chef and allows for creativity and attainment of mastery on the part of the sauce chef.” Likewise, the data administrator in a nonprofit organization who works with donor information every day is in the best position of anyone in the organization to make decisions on how to configure the CRM software to facilitate the production of reports requested by the director of philanthropy. Charles Handy likens the practice of managers stepping in to make decisions their subordinates should permitted to make to stealing: And “stealing people’s decisions is wrong”.

Stealing people’s opportunities to make decisions and use their gifts robs them of an essential part of their humanity.

Subsidiarity is right not only because it makes good business sense but because it is rooted in the conviction that, as uniquely gifted individuals, managers and employees alike flourish when they have the opportunity to use their gifts and abilities for the benefit of others. “We develop best in our work when we use our gifts and freedom to achieve shared goals and to create and sustain right relationships with one another and with those served by the organization.  In other words, the more participatory the workplace, the more likely all workers will be able to develop their gifts and talents” (Vocation of the Business Leader: A Reflection, 16). Because each person is always capable of giving something to others, “stealing people’s opportunities to make decisions and use their gifts robs them of an essential part of their humanity” (Respect in Action, 1).

Although Atlee’s maxim, “You don’t keep a dog and bark yourself” was in my vocabulary previously, I was not acquainted with the principle of subsidiarity by name until introduced to it by an Anglican priest (Rev. Kevin Dixon, now CEO of Wellspring Foundation for Education) who joined the team at International Justice Mission Canada in 2015. By that time I had matured in leadership enough to understand that if you come to the C-suite looking for a throne you have severely misjudged the obligations of the role. Charles Handy explains that subsidiarity “implies that the power properly belongs, in the first place, lower down or further out. . .Those in the center are the servants of the parts. The task of the center, and of any leader, is to help the individual or the group to live up to their responsibilities, to enable them to deserve their subsidiarity” (The Age of Paradox, 146). In this sense, as Handy writes elsewhere, “Subsidiarity… is the reverse of empowerment. It is not the center giving away or delegating power.” It is leadership recognizing where power truly lies.

Three Leadership Responsibilities

Leaders who wish to be guided by the principle of subsidiarity must engage in three important culture-making tasks.  The first is to establish a corporate culture of trust. “When they embrace subsidiarity, leaders acknowledge that there are risks associated with inviting people to use their gifts and their own judgment. Accepting the risk inherent in trusting others, leaders affirm that the freedom and intelligence of employees should never be suppressed or disregarded” (Respect in Action, 27). The assumption behind subsidiarity is that those higher up may not know better. It is this readiness on the part of the leader to assume risk that makes subsidiarity different from delegation. The one who delegates confers power but can take it back at any time. Those who work in an environment governed by the principle of subsidiarity are called to a higher level of excellence and participation and are more likely to grow and accept their full responsibility than those assigned a task by delegation. Delegation remains a tool for testing performance with increasing levels of risk and trust, so that an employee over time may grow in the degree of autonomy she or he is granted.

The second task for orienting a culture toward subsidiarity is to define the boundaries of autonomy for the various parts of the organization. Handy says, “To be effective, subsidiarity has to be formalized.” “This is a key leadership responsibility since it creates the right conditions for employees to understand their tasks, their degrees of freedom, and their interdependencies within the organization as a whole” (Respect in Action, 32). At IJM Canada, the members of the senior leadership team (those who reported directly to me) understood that they had autonomy in hiring decisions.  I asked to be kept informed, would comment on features of individuals they were considering that I found attractive and would formally sign off on the job offer, but otherwise kept my hands off the process. At the same time, I had certain reserve powers. There were moments when, on watershed issues, I took the opinions of the senior leadership team under advisement and gave clear direction. Every employee needs to “understand that there are limits to the autonomy employees can be given in certain situations, and these limits are defined by the impact their decisions can have on others and the business as a whole” (Respect in Action, xvi).

Great leaders create an organization that fosters the effective development of employees by equipping them with the tools, advice, support and affirmation needed to make great decisions.

The final task for leaders is to develop the people that they lead.  Subsidiarity presupposes, in Peter Drucker’s words, “that people are an organization’s most valuable resource and that a manager’s job is to prepare and free people to perform” (The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, xix). Great leaders create an organization that fosters the effective development of employees by equipping them with the tools, advice, support and affirmation needed to make great decisions within their “empty space”, their area of discretion. An orientation toward subsidiarity sees training and development not as an avenue toward greater productivity and efficiency, but as an investment in the flourishing of uniquely gifted individuals in their place of employment. In fact, a leader’s commitment to subsidiarity may be tested when the employee they have assisted through education, training, mentoring and counsel feels inspired to leave the organization to pursue personal and professional growth in another context.

The theological underpinnings of the principle of subsidiarity, rooted in the idea that each man and woman who joins himself or herself to an enterprise is an expression of imago Dei, challenges the leader to create an environment where human gifts can be more fully realized and where creativity and responsibility can be more concretely expressed. “For such a leader, the principle of subsidiarity is more than a way to design good work, or to make good products, or to offer good services.  It is a way to enlarge the possibilities for full human development at work, indeed, for people to become who they were created to be” (Respect in Action, 45). Subsidiarity, says Handy, assumes that “the best thinking is out there, away from the centre, and down there, away from the top”. No one person and no one group is expected to be all-wise, all-knowing, all-competent. Better to let dogs do what dogs do (that is, bark) and let every other creature do what they were created to do.

© 2022 Long Run Consulting. Banner photo by iStock. Used by permission. A version of this article was first published by Kentro Christian Network: Reprinted by permission.

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