'Leave the idiot work to the idiots.'
A bishop's answer when asked to define Subsidiarity - so the story goes.
The blunt interpretation is proof that even the noblest values can be demeaned and misappropriated.
Subsidiarity is the principle that says a decision should be made at the lowest appropriate level.
Subsidiarity allows each person their dignity.
It is a principle of social justice that, while used by the Roman Catholic Church, is wrongly attributed to it (and therefore possibly ignored!) It predates the Church and has universal application to good decision making. Its universality is demonstrated in the fact that it is part of the Treaty on European Union.
'Subsidiarity' stems from the Latin subsidies, which means 'help, assistance'. And here, as with all good ideas, is where it goes wrong.
The person who is interested in power, practices subsidiarity by choosing what power to delegate to those below him in the hierarchy. To him, subsidiarity is throwing crumbs from the decision making table. This apparent act of generosity and power sharing upon which most organisations operate has its sinister side. The person receiving the crumbs becomes dependent on the person throwing them.
The other version of where subsidiarity comes from is subsidiaries, which means 'of or belonging to the reserves'. In the Roman army, the reserves waited in the rear in case the front line army needed them to overcome a superior enemy. The reserve army did not initiate action, it waited to be called up. It strengthened, reinforced and perfected an act already begun.
In good decision making, subsidiarity presumes that a person should be left to make their own decisions - even 'wrong' ones - without interference from a superior authority. That 'superior' authority can be in a family, a community, an organisation, a state, or the world.
A person will concede part of their individuality as part of their membership of one of those groups. They may also concede some of their decision making authority. But only to the extent necessary to benefit the whole, from which they benefit.
If the authority that the person has conceded as part of their membership of the group is exercised 'beyond the necessary', then the group begins to destruct. The reason is that the person is unable to exercise the talents that they have brought to the group. As the group can only define itself by its works - the sum of each person's talents - then the loss of part of those talents means that the group is not able to function.
In short - subsidiarity requires that each person has as much autonomy and responsibility as possible, and as much control or intervention by a higher authority as necessary.
Individual initiative should only be limited where it is absolutely unavoidable.
The benefit of subsidiary to the higher authority is that it can focus with greater freedom and energy and effectiveness to tasks belonging to it, and to which it alone can accomplish.
Ironically, subsidiarity is one of the reasons to have a higher authority. Such authority exists to create the space to enable people to discover their potential. If the higher authority moves into that space then it contradicts its reason for being. If the boss starts interfering - for well meaning or other reasons - in the decisions and actions of the workers, the boss isn't doing his job.
The higher authority assists by removing obstacles to the person that the person can't remove themselves, or that are otherwise more effectively removed by the higher authority so that the person can focus on their core business.
A Leader practises subsidiarity when they create the space; when they define the purpose and invite the right person to stretch their potential towards it; when they equip the person with the tools that they need to leverage their talents, when they affirm without intervention, when they retreat...
Sadly, it is a perversion of subsidiarity that is most commonly practised. It is that a worker starts as an empty vessel - a human resource. The worker is loaded with information and authority and power by the boss to the extent that the boss feels necessary. The boss adds or removes that cargo as he thinks fit. The boss sets that vessel adrift, attached to a rope.
In short - the worker's power only exists in as much as it has been given to him by the boss. This is what most people mean by 'delegation'.
A healthy organisation recruits people who have existing talents that the organisation needs. It then lets them get on with the job. The boss's job is to remove the obstacles.
And stay out of the way.