The Surprising Alignment of Marcus Buckingham and Moses

Published November 20, 2017

Perhaps you’re familiar with the story in Exodus 18.

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, pays a visit after God has delivered the Israelites out of Egypt. It’s a victorious time and I can imagine Moses is feeling a bit re-energized as a leader.

Verse 13 tells us, “Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people.” It’s back to business as usual. Moses returns to a role he likely feels confident in. I would imagine he is eager for his father-in-law to see him in action. It’s an opportunity to prove he is capable and confident in leading God’s people.

I can’t help but feel a little sorry for Moses when to his surprise, rather than praising his leadership, Jethro says, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.”

If I’m Moses, I’m feeling every emotion imaginable within a matter of seconds— surprise, anger, sheepishness, fear, doubt, insecurity, arrogance and resistance.

Jethro goes on to describe one of the first organizational charts we see in scripture. Moses is instructed to appoint leaders over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens so that he can primarily focus on the most difficult work.

In the consulting work that I do with organizations, one of the first questions I ask is, “How many direct reports does the leader have?” This one question always provides insight for me regarding where the challenges lie for the organization.

Most leaders hire me to coach or consult them because they are experiencing a roadblock of some kind.

In his Global Leadership Summit talk, Marcus Buckingham made a statement that perfectly addresses the question of how many direct reports a leader should have. He said, “The perfect span of control is the number of people you can have a check-in with every week.”

Ridiculously simple, right?

But that’s the issue. We want silver bullets, but it is actually simple solutions consistently applied that lead to extraordinary outcomes. It’s a matter of discipline.

If we’re at the top of the org chart, we assume we have greater freedom to manage and control our worlds.

Yes and no.

We may have greater control, but faithfully stewarding that control means surrendering to the disciplines that will make both our organizations and ourselves better.

This is what Jethro was explaining to Moses. “If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.

If we truly want to lead great teams, we must commit to honesty and discipline in our assessment of a reasonable span of control. Ask the question, “How many people can I realistically, consistently develop?”

If those you directly lead do not have intentional time with you each week, you are missing an enormous opportunity to train, develop, delegate and coach.

So, let me ask you… is what you’re doing not good?

If you’re uncertain of whether you have an appropriate span of control, here are some questions to get you thinking:

  1. Do you meet one-on-one with your direct reports on a regular basis?
  2. Do your employees get your focused attention and best energy?
  3. Are you happy with the level of leadership responsibility your staff is assuming?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, I would encourage you to consider re-evaluating your organizational structure to determine if you have a manageable number of direct reports.

In order to get the best from people, we must be sure they are getting the best from us.

Leaders who are leading themselves well and developing the best in others lead great organizations.

About the Author(s)
Jenni Catron

Jenni Catron

Writer, Speaker & Leadership Expert

The 4Sight Group

Jenni Catron is a writer, speaker and leadership expert committed to helping others lead from their extraordinary best. A leader who loves “putting feet to vision,” she has served on the executive leadership teams of Menlo Church in Menlo Park, CA, and Cross Point Church in Nashville, TN. Outreach Magazine has recognized Jenni as one of the 30 emerging influencers reshaping church leadership. She is the author of several books, including her latest The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership.