I saw a post on social media recently that said something like, “I’m getting too old to do more; instead, I’m focusing on having less to do.” While amusing, this little statement actually carries a subtly embedded, but important, piece of managerial wisdom. Specifically, a well-designed and well-run organization should provide its leaders with the time and margin to invest, grow, and build for a successful future.
To understand, think for a moment about a common misconception many of us hold; let’s call it the myth of the busy leader. When thinking about leaders, managers, or executives, we tend to think about how busy they are. We see them as being in continuous motion, taking calls, fighting fires, fielding questions, and solving problems. Busyness can be so seductive that we subconsciously see a person’s influence, importance, and value, as a function of how busy they appear to be. They must be essential to success, after all, just look at all the demands on their time and all the things on their plate. It’s partly why so many like to talk about how busy they are; busyness is a reflection of status, importance, and centrality. It’s alluring and addictive because it looks and feels so productive and because it aligns, in the short term at least, with the signals we like to send about our productivity and value. The problem is that it’s just not true. While the allure of busyness is both seductive and common, it is also an illusion that masks hazards to long term organizational performance.
To illustrate, consider a busy executive, and then ponder two questions. First, where is the management team? One reason that executives are so busy is that they resist delegation, thinking it makes them seem less in control or that it raises the risk of error by allowing others autonomy and authority. After all, shouldn’t a boss be on top of every detail and have the final say on every issue? Not only does this sort of thinking limit the organization to the capacity of your own personal bandwidth it also robs your team of the opportunity to grow and your organization of the opportunity to benefit from the diverse talents of your team. I remind people often that one of my jobs at the Parker College is to build an operation that will function well, long after I’m gone. To do that, I need to build a management team that manages well without me. Second, if leaders are focused fully on the tasks at hand, when will they find time to think critically and deeply about the future, the market, the competition, and the culture they are building? More basically, where do they find the time and opportunity learn about the environment, to ask questions, to engage constituents, or to consider other models for their work and processes? And please don’t think the answer is multitasking. Here, too, the research has overwhelmingly shown that myth to be contrary to reality.
To be clear, this is not a criticism of working hard or being busy; we all have seasons, tasks, or projects that can demand our full time and attention. Rather, this is an exhortation to think strategically, and to take control of your schedule and work. To put it differently, it is a chance to move from a defensive posture to an offensive one. Build a team, an office, and an organization that can produce sustainable, high quality results without your continuous attention and involvement. Much like the comment that sparked this message, design your work and organization so that you have less to do and more time to devote to empowering others, enabling your organization, and building value for the long term.
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