Leaders are busy people – this is common knowledge. But are busy people the most effective at their work? Not really.
This may come as a surprise to you, but as leaders we’re not paid to be busy.
More importantly, being busy isn’t a measure of our worth to the organisation. Our value isn’t determined by how much ‘stuff’ we get through in a day, how many meetings we attend before lunchtime, or how many emails we send before we finally go to bed at midnight.
Deep down we all know this. But at the same time, when people ask us how we are, our default answer is ‘busy’.
The two main responsibilities of a leader
We’ve somehow confused busyness with effectiveness. We’ve come to see them as the same when, in reality, they are polar opposites.
I fundamentally believe there are two parts to a leader job. One is to deliver a result for the organisation that employs us, and the other is to look after the people that we have the privilege and responsibility to lead.
Because, at the end of the day, everyone that we lead is the most important person in someone else’s life. Our words and actions have a far-reaching impact and don’t just affect those that work for us between the hours of nine-to-five.
When we regularly pause for thought we can ensure that we are working effectively and doing the right things.
It’s undeniably true that our ability to get stuff done and deliver results is what has made us successful in our careers. It has got us to where we are today. If it weren’t for our ability to do large volumes of work and deliver results consistently, we probably wouldn’t be in our current leadership position.
But there comes a point where a relentless focus on progress and momentum can start to work against us. As a wise person (Einstein? Henry Ford? Possibly someone else…) once said:
“If you do what you’ve always done, you will get what you’ve always got.”
Leaders need to deliver through their people
As we step into more senior leadership positions, our focus needs to shift to delivering through others. Here’s a variation of that famous quote that’s worth considering:
“If you do what you’ve always done, you will get less than you’ve always got.”
My point: as we get promoted, we don’t miraculously find ourselves with less to do.
We don’t find we suddenly get 100 fewer emails a day. We probably get more.
We don’t find we have fewer tasks to prioritise. Again, more.
This means that unless we consciously make a decision to work differently, we find ourselves working longer, harder, faster and more frenetically than ever before.
We find ourselves in Super-Manager mode when we should be in Leader mode, a strategy that, in the short-term, will continue to deliver results.
But things can take a turn for the worse. Perhaps you’ve been there yourself? Perhaps the results that the team, department or business deliver suddenly and inexplicably drop-off? Perhaps the company’s super-star, senior manager suddenly exits the business under a shadow within six months of being promoted to director?
Or perhaps the consequences of working longer, harder and faster take longer to be seen? Maybe on our 55th birthday we suddenly realise that we’ve been crushing it at work, delivering year-on-year success, but we don’t actually know any of our colleagues and we’ve not been there for our kids?
But what if there was another way?
I believe there is. I also believe that the way most of us work, simply doesn’t work.
What should leaders be doing?
We need to slow down in order to speed up. When we regularly pause for thought we can ensure that we are working effectively and doing the right things, as opposed to reacting and being consumed by busy work.
A Super-Manager’s mind is like a Christmas snowglobe. When we give it a good shake we can barely see the beautiful cottage behind all the whirling snow. We know it’s there, we just can’t see it.
Find your own way to ensure that you are slowing down in order to speed up and then work relentlessly hard to make it a habit.
Our minds are just the same. When we’re leaping from one task to the next without pausing to think, it’s akin to constantly shaking the snow globe and complaining that we can’t see the scene inside.
With so many thoughts whirling around we’re never going to be able to prioritise effectively or spot the opportunities to take things to the next level.
Are you guilty of playing the Corporate Whack Attack?
To see what this looks like in practical terms, let’s look at a very granular example.
Think about how much time you typically give to delegating the small, everyday tasks.
- Do you stop to think about what needs to be done and what good looks like?
- Do you consider who is the best person to do it and how it impacts on the other things they are working on?
- Do you pause and actually consider if this thing even needs to be done at all?
Or do you just play Corporate Whack Attack?
It’s the business equivalent of the ‘whack-a-mole’ fairground game.
As fast as tasks arrive on our desk, we’re batting them off to someone in our team as fast as we can.
Why? Because that’s what we do when we’re busy, when we focus on activity and busyness as opposed to results and effectiveness.
So what’s the answer? I believe it lies in slowing down in order to speed up.
Make time to reflect - and do this in a way that works for you
Just like we don’t need to do anything other than wait and allow the snow to settle if we want to see the scene in our snowglobe, we don’t need to do anything to gain greater clarity and focus at work.
We need to carve out time each day to pause for thought, reflect and plan. Bill Gates famously attributes much of Microsoft’s success to his ‘thinking weeks’.
There are countless gurus, online teachers and planning journals that will tell you how and when to do this. Some will tell you to follow a very strict routine and that if you don’t, you’ll never be a successful leader or live a fulfilling life!
But be wary of such sensational marketing and blindly applying the tactics that others employ.
After all: “One man’s wisdom, is another man’s folly.”
As for me, for the past five years, part of my routine has been to start each day (yes, before even looking at my emails) with 20 minutes of planning and reflection, which has been invaluable. But you don’t have to follow my routine.
My suggestion is to find your own way to ensure that you are slowing down in order to speed up and then work relentlessly hard to make it a habit.
I guarantee you’ll reap huge rewards.
About Ben Morton
Ben is a best selling author, accomplished keynote speaker and sought after leadership mentor who has worked with senior leadership teams in the U.K, US and Australia.
Ben’s work as a leadership mentor is based upon three fundamental beliefs:
- Leadership is less about the tools and models and more about understanding what it really means to be a leader.
- The best leaders put the interests of their people and organisations ahead of their own.
- Leadership is both a great privilege and a great responsibility.
As a graduate of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst he completed two tours of duty in Iraq as a Captain in the British Army. He then moved into business as Global Head of HR, World Challenge, later part of Tui Travel and followed this with a period in the Tesco Leadership Academy.
Alongside his military and corporate career Ben has also led expeditions around the world to places as diverse as the Himalaya’s, Malaysia and Mongolian Stepppe country.
He now works exclusively with senior and executive teams to help them be the most effective version of themselves as individual leaders whilst also becoming a genuine, high performing team.