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Management, Delegation, and the Eternally Un-Stopped Buck: The Week That Was

The IOC made a ruling on Russia over the weekend that was less a ruling than a passing of the buck by the very people in charge of stopping it.

Opening of the Rio 2016 Olympic Village Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

If you ever find yourself in a management position for the first time in your life, you will likely pay a visit to your local library and grab the first couple books that catch your eye about management technique. I know because not more than a year ago I did precisely that.

If you find yourself in his position, I feel compelled to provode fair warning: These books are not particularly well-written. You will find that these pages contain none of the sort of figurative language that you memorized the names of in eighth grade. The sentences remind of Hemingway absent the suspicion that the simplicity of their construction belies the true genius of the person behind then.

What you will find in these books—perhaps unsurprisingly; perhaps quite surprisingly—is cogent and clear advice on how to manage people who are inherently inclined to hate you. That advice boils down to one axiom: Don't be an ass.

Those are easy enough words to live by unless you find yourself in the unfortunate predicament of actually being an ass. That would be quite a fix indeed. But let's assume you're a perfectly fine person—it certainly makes me feel better to be writing for fine people than for not fine people—and didn't need this poorly written book to tell you to continue on that track. You, then, are ready to move on to the truly difficult-to-master axiom of good management: Delegate as much as you can.

This is the toughest part. You want things done the way you want them done and there's us no one else to bring that reality to the world than the person from whom those very wants originated: Yourself. So, you're stuck in this conundrum: You can either run around like a dog who bit into that case of Red Bull you left on the garage floor again or you can accept the reality that your team, like every other team in the kno world, is going to ultimately generate substandard work. The key to management—delegation—it turns out, involves coming ti terms with the latter.

Once you've gotten the knack of this whole delegation bit, it's tempting to abuse it. When you're the king of delegation, the opportunity to never do any actual work again becomes a real possibility. This is the dream—retirement without dealing with the financial hit—but it would be a clear violation of the foundational axiom of management literature: Don’t be a ass. You see, you can't just leave all the dirty work for somebody else to figure out. That would be an abuse of authority and bad management.

Sport typically has a pretty healthy relationship with delegation. It's written into the very nature of the coach-athlete relationship. The coach comes up with the plan that he believes is most likely to lead to the success of the individual or organization under his charge and leaves it to the team or athlete to put that plan into action. In baseball, a pitching coach might come up with the strategy to feed Mike Trout high fastballs and see if he can hit them. It’s the pitcher’s job to not miss low. I'm track, a coach comes up with a weekly training plan and workouts and it’s up to the runner to actually do the runs and, you know, not show up to the workout prohibitively hungover.

But, at some point, when the execution of delegated responsibilities repeatedly falls short, the person in charge—be it a coach, manager, editor, or international governing body—has to engage in some manner of corrective action. The buck, as they say, stops there.

The job of the buck stopper is simple conceptually: stop the damn buck. You don't redirect the buck to a non-stopper or ignore the buck or run away from the buck. You stop the damn buck. You've already delegated everything else, so all that remains is this one job that you can't delegate without also delegating yourself to unemployment or irrelevance. Stop the damn buck already.

On Sunday morning, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued a final decision with regard to participation of Russia in the Rio Olympics in light of the widespread and systematic doping allegations against their country’s athletics program. As the committee responsible for the Olympics, the IOC was the likely locus of the buck’s stopping on this issue, especially less than a month out of the games. However, their decision leaves the buck loose in the wild.

Aside from the strong directive that no Russian athlete who has ever served a drug ban would be allowed to compete in Rio, the IOC told the sports comprising the Olympic games that they had to make these decisions. A duck and run of this sort hasn’t been seen in major sports since...every single time Roger Goodell has to discipline a team or player for anything. Not flattering company for the IOC, indeed.

From a track perspective, the practical upshot of this decision is that no Russian athletes will compete on the track or in the field at Rio. The IOC officially granted the IAAF complete autonomy in deciding which Russians will compete, so long as they don’t have a previous ban. The IAAF has been, to their credit, at the forefront of the charge to keep Russia as far away from Rio as possible with the only exception being Yuliya Stepanova—the 800m runner who brought to light the extent of Russia’s doping program. Given that Stepanova has served a suspension for drugs, she is not allowed to participate under this ruling. So, from the IAAF’s perspective, no Russians are qualified to compete in their competitions at the Olympics.

Regardless of the outcome, the process represents a problematic display of cowardice on the part of the very body responsible for ensuring the “purity of the games.” That phrase itself is fuzzy, at best, and essentially means nothing. Regardless of its meaning and clarity, it is the mission of the IOC and, when confronted with a problem directly related to furthering the mission, they basically said, “not our problem.”

Delegation is great, but, as discussed above, you can’t delegate the very responsibilities that make your job have any purpose. The IOC has done that here. The results may end up being no different than if they issued a sweeping ban of Russia, but in decision-making, we’re taught to judge process over results. The process here is woefully lacking.