Leadership Principle No. 2–Followup.

(Note to pastors: Many years ago, a church member paid the fees for me to take a one-day Dale Carnegie Management Course. The one great lesson I’ve carried with me these 40 years is that “if you delegate a task, you may assume it will not get done unless you follow up on it.” It’s an invaluable lesson. I ran across the point being made this week in a book on the Battle of New Orleans, and feel it’s worth passing on.

Bear in mind that the no. 1 principle of management (or leadership) is delegating–matching people up with the right jobs–and the no. 2 principle is following up on that assignment.

Toward the end of this, I’ll drop in my own horror story on the matter of following up. Just because I learned it in a class in the late 1960s does not mean I would get smart and actually practice it. How does that line go–too late smart, too soon dead.

Let’s call this: “What Andrew Jackson wished he had done” or “How Jackson Came Close to Losing the Battle of New Orleans.”)

The best lessons we ever learn are the ones we got wrong and suffered from and thus determine not ever to let happen again. Which is to say, experience is the best teacher.

After General Andrew Jackson entered New Orleans late in 1814 and took charge of its defense, he toured the perimeters of the area, found the city to be exposed on all sides, and assigned officers to various tasks.

In his book on the Battle of New Orleans, “Patriotic Fire,” Winston Groom writes: “…there were any number of bayous, streams, and canals that, left unguarded and unobstructed, could have allowed the British through. Jackson ordered all of these blocked by felled trees, with guards from the state militia posted to watch them.” Then, Groom ominously adds, “Lack of diligent enforcement of this order proved to be his greatest mistake.”

Here’s what happened.

Even though Andrew Jackson had ordered all bayous to be blocked, as a further precaution, he ordered General Jacques Villere to have them guarded day and night. Jackson was smart; back-up is a good thing. It is, if you do one more thing: follow up on the fellow you put in charge.

General Villere assigned his son Major Gabriel Villere to block and guard Bayou Bienvenue east of New Orleans where invaders could enter from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The major in turn sent a task force to take care of this matter: “a sergeant, eight white men, and three mulattoes.”

Now, class, please note that after Jackson assigned this matter to the general, he did not follow up to see if it was being executed. After the general assigned that bayou to the major, he did not follow up. After the major sent the 12 soldiers to block the bayou, he likewise marked it off his list.

Does anyone see a pattern here? The error was being compounded at every stage.

The sergeant and his 11 soldiers traveled out to their assigned spot, sleepily investigated a fishing village nearby, and were asleep on the job when the British came upon them. Eleven of the men were run down and captured, while one escaped through the swamps and cane breaks, and finally showed up at Jackson’s headquarters 3 days later, announcing that “the British are coming.” By then, Jackson knew it.

Winston Groom pauses in his narrative to analyze why Major Villere had not blocked the bayou as he had been instructed. He believes the young officer convinced himself the British would never come this way, and since his family used that bayou to enter Lake Borgne on their way to the Mississippi Gulf, wanted it left open. Following the battle, Major Villere was court martialed on a number of charges, including treason.

They could just as easily have court martialed General Villere and Andrew Jackson for malfeasance of leadership for their failure to follow up on the assignments they had delegated. That’s no crime, of course, otherwise a lot of us would be rotting in jail.

Follow up is such a simple matter, one is almost embarrassed to make a major point of it. It might be as simple as an informal, “How’s that matter coming?” or a “Is there anything I can do to help you with that assignment?”

In the case of a large company or organization, the boss (the delegater) may have an assistant who does the follow-up. See Gomer Lesch’s note at the end of this article on our website.

Human nature being what it is–sinful, selfish, shallow come to mind–people tend to slough off assignments they’ve been given. That’s why they need to know they will be checked back on and held accountable for the task.

People do not do what you expect; they do what you inspect.

I didn’t make that up, but it ought to be carved in granite and installed in every would-be leader’s office.

Now, here’s my tale of woe on this subject. It took me a number of years to quit obsessing over this incident and just as long to get past my peeve at a couple of good friends whom I felt had let me down. As you will see, it was the Andrew Jackson thing all over again: the person I delegated the job to turned around and delegated it to another, and he to another, with none of us double-checking to see if it were getting done.

Sometime in the early 1990s, my friend Larry Black, longtime minister of music at FBC of Jackson, Mississippi, invited me to come up and help his choir and orchestra in a repeat performance of “Alleluia,” the wonderful Bill Gaither/Ron Huff worship musical of the early 1970s in which I was the narrator and had a little song. He brought back the original singers and we had a delightful evening.

The plan was that the following Sunday, Larry’s choir and orchestra would make the 3 hour journey to Kenner and we would repeat the presentation that night. I was thrilled. This would be great. And that’s when my mouth wrote a check I couldn’t cash.

“Next Sunday night, when you come to Kenner,” I told the huge choir, “we’ll have some Louisiana seafood gumbo for you.” Murmurs of satisfaction went up over the room.

Monday morning, before leaving Jackson for the drive home, I called our minister of education back at Kenner. “I’ve promised these folks we’ll feed them gumbo Sunday night before the performance.” He said he would see to it.

My first mistake was that, after delegating it, I never gave the dinner another thought. Not one. All week long we did various things to get ready to host two huge busloads of guests for the performance, and I worked hard at remembering all my lines in the program. But at no time did I think about our plans to feed supper to our visitors.

The first thought I had about it–as incredulous as this seems now–was on the following Sunday evening. The choir and orchestra had arrived and set up in the sanctuary. We had had our rehearsal and were 10 minutes away from walking over to the fellowship hall for supper before returning for the evening program.

Suddenly it occurred to me: “I wonder if we’re set up for the meal.” I looked around the sanctuary and found the minister of education. “How are we fixed for the supper tonight?” He said, “I don’t know. I turned it over to the minister of music.” Uh-oh. Not good.

I looked around and spotted the minister of music. “Are we okay on the supper tonight? I promised these folks some gumbo.” He looked at me blankly and said, “I don’t know. I turned it over to Cynthia,” referring to a senior adult member of the choir who frequently took charge of meals and refreshments.

So now, I’m trying to find Cynthia, who incidentally had already made it plain in a hundred ways that she was not happy with my being pastor of that church and consistently found fault with my preaching. I approached her and said, “Cynthia, how are we set up for supper tonight?”

She stretched upward to her full five feet, two inches, and with fire coming out her eyes, said, “If you think that I am going to spend hours and hours peeling shrimp for seafood gumbo, you have lost your mind.”

I stood there, stunned, as though I had been slapped.

“What are you saying?” I asked dumbly. “Do we have a supper for these folks or not?”

“We do,” she assured me. “We’re feeding them salisbury steak.”

What we called mystery meat in college.

At least we had a meal to serve them. It wasn’t a total loss.

Just before breaking for supper, I took the microphone and told our guests that I had over-promised the previous Sunday night. “We have a good supper prepared for you, but it isn’t seafood gumbo.”

They’re classy folks and they were hungry, and my guess is that I was the only person disappointed that night. In fact, some who are reading this are amazed I would make such a big issue of the matter. As I say, it mattered to me. I had given my word to some people I treasured on an issue that mattered to me.

I was major disappointed. And angry. Angry at the minister of education who had sloughed off my assignment to someone else, at the minister of music who had palmed it off on another, and at the senior adult lady who so cavalierly had changed the plans and used it as additional fodder to build resentment against me. Most of all, I was angry at myself.

I had no one to blame but me.

You would think I would have known. Not only had I learned to follow up on delegated tasks over 20 years earlier in the Carnegie course, but one day in the early 1970s my pastor at FBC Jackson had taken a pencil and illustrated the point in a way I never forgot.

(Message to my Mom: excuse me for what follows.)

The pastor wrote down the word “Assume.” He said, “Whenever you ask someone to do a task and assume they will do it without checking back on them, this will happen.” He underlined the first 3 letters, then the next letter, then the last two. He said, “They will make this of ‘u’ and ‘me.’

Andrew Jackson found it out. I keep having to learn it the hard way. My guess is most of the pastors reading this could add their own sad story to this crucial lesson.

“So, how’s it coming, Bob? Need any help on that matter I asked you to handle?”

Doing it is so simple. Failing to do it is so scary.

A postscript.

Want to see follow-up in Scripture? After their first missionary journey into Cyprus and then Asia Minor, Paul and Barnabas rested at Antioch in Syria for some time. Then, we read in Acts 15:36, of their decision to retrace their steps. “After some days Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.'”

See how they are. That’s the point. Do not abandon them, assuming that just because you instructed them they are carrying out your plan. Go check.

It’s basic management. It’s solid ministry.

5 thoughts on “Leadership Principle No. 2–Followup.

  1. Joe;

    Excellent point. I served on the 3rd Army Staff during Desert Shield/Storm in G-3 Aviation Operations. When I reported in, my boss, told me to follow the acronym CAV-F on every staff action. Coordinate – Anticipate – Validate – Follow-up with the most important being – Follow-up. In order for a principle to be a principle, it must pervasive … whether you are establishing blocking positions around New Orleans or providing aviation support to a campaign in Saudi Arabia — if you don’t follow up … the object of your negligence very often will not happen. Another adage from my former life was — “People do well what the boss checks” again – follow-up. And like true principles …violate them and disaapointment is sure to follow. Thanks for the great reminder … Charley

  2. This strikes a chord. Howard Foshee, my old boss in the Church Administration Department of the then Sunday School Board used to advocate: “Delegate, and leave it there. Check on it, and leave it there.”

    Then Dr. James L Sullivan became my boss. He would delegate and leave it there, but generally left it up to Dr. J. M. Crowe to check on it — and check on it — and check on it.

    The best years of my vocational life: administrative geniuses (and spiritual giants) who weren’t afraid to trust but who never neglected to verify.

    A person can grow under that type of leadership!



  3. Please, please tell me that I wasn’t the Minister of ed who passed it off! Though I think I was!


  4. I needed these words of encouragement and reminders. Thanks so much.


  5. My friend Dionne Williams of Gulfport is one of the finest men I know, and I count it a pleasure not only to have known him since he was a student at Mississippi State in the 1970s, but to have had him on our staff at Kenner for a couple of years in the early 1990s. In his note above, he asks if he were the minister of education in my gumbo/salisbury steak story. The funny thing about that–and the article makes it clear–is that it was a big issue only to me, and no one else. Dionne has even forgotten about it, as he well should have. The only reason I relate the incident here is that it makes the point about follow-up so well.


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