Some time back I wrote an article How Organisations Can Save Leaders From Drowning. In this I spoke of things organisations can do to raise the chances that leaders will be able to stay afloat in their demanding roles.
Since then the circumstances for leaders have become even more challenging. Complexity and volume have broadly risen, and core assumptions about work have been upended by the pandemic. A lot of workers opted to step away from their jobs in recent years , amidst the so named”Great Resignation”. For the majority of leaders, who remain in their roles, the waters are deep and the currents are strong.
In my coaching and group faciliation I meet a lot of leaders who are clearly feeling overwhelmed by their roles. For many, roles that were once fulfilling and rewarding have become a daily struggle to stay afloat. To make things worse, most have some to realise that the frenetic pace is here to stay
Many leaders assume they are powerless to do anything about this. I believe that their are 3 important decisions leaders need to make to save themselves from drowning:
Decide to do less
Decide to take a shorter path
Decide to tell yourself a more positive story
DECISION #1 – Decide to do less
Before leaders take on any piece of work there are 2 essential, often overlooked, questions to be asked. “Does this work really need to be done?” and “Does this work really need to be done by me?”
Question 1 – “Does this work really need to be done?”
A lot of leaders seem to operate under the mantra “bite off more than you can chew, then chew like hell”. This approach can deliver results in the short term, and it may impress some people. But over the longer term it is not sustainable. Having too much to do leads to errors, low quality results, compromised health, strained relationships, and poor workplace cultures.
For leaders to survive and prosper they need to become better at saying “no” – not just occasionally but regularly. Each potential piece of work needs to be assessed critically with questions such as – “Is it realistic to embark on this?” “How will this work help?” “Is this work in line with our goals?” “Do the benefits of doing this work outweigh the costs?” “What else could I do with the time this would take?” All of these lead to the important large question “Does this work really need to be done?”
Conscientious, commited leaders often find that saying “no” to work is not easy. But it is essential.
Question 2 – “Does this work really need to be done by me?”
Integral to leadership is the concept of getting things done through collective effort. Yet so many leaders I meet hold on to too much work, rather than properly utilising the capacity and skills of others. This is usually well intended. They don’t want to over-burden their team members, and they don’t want to give people work that is above their current level of capability.
The problem with holding on to too much work rather than passing it on is twofold. The most obvious problem is that leaders face the risk of drowning under the work they have to do. The less obvious but no less important problem is that team members lose enthusiasm and motivation, as they are not given enough challenging work to realise their potential. Far from doing people a favour by holding onto work, leaders who don’t delegate enough are doing everyone a disservice.
When working with leaders I often suggest a shift of default to “When I receive work I’ll almost always find someone else to do it, unless there is a very good reason it has to be me”.
DECISION #2 – Decide to take a shorter path
Almost every task or project has multiple paths available for completion. Often there are 10 or even 100 ways to get something done. Some paths are lengthy, while others are shorter.
Busy leaders, who find themselves on the treadmill of unending action, seldom pause to adequately consider the range of paths available to get a task or project done. They rapidly embark on an approach and move into familar action mode. Very often, the path that is taken ends up being significantly longer than needed.
One of the important ways leaders can save themselves from drowning is to take more time to choose and plan the optimal path for completing each work requirement. As Dale Carnegie said “An hour of planning can save you 10 hours of doing”. For busy people, planning time may look and feel unproductive, but it is usually the most productive work that a leader does. Leaders are not paid merely to do the work – they are paid to lead, and leadership involves planning and making suitable choices.
Not only can this kind of thoughtful planning make the path from A to B shorter, it also opens up the opportunity for individual and collective learning and growth.
DECISION #3 – Decide to tell yourself a more positive story
Often, when I interact with leaders, their first words are – “I’m so busy”, “I’m flat out”, “I’m slammed”, “I’m swamped”, “Things are crazy right now”, “I have so much on” or “There’s just not enough time”. And sometimes I hear the words “I feel like I’m drowning”.
This is often the reality of how a leader is feeling. Yet, to make it the first and most dominant thought about work is a path to misery. The stories we tell ourselves shape our reality, even moreso than our actual circumstances. When leaders constantly tell themselves how busy they are they build a view of work that is difficult, suffocating and something to be endured. There is no room in this thinking for the fulfilment, joy and hope that are so necessary for real progress and rewarding lives.
To make things worse, when leaders regularly talk about how busy they are the gloom and hopelessness spreads to others. Psychologists call this mood spreading effect Emotional Contagion. While we can catch emotions and moods from anyone, we are far more likely to catch them from our leaders.
Leaders need to make a decision to replace the common, unhelpful script of “I’m so busy” with more positive words. Try some of these – “I’m/We’re making good headway on ___”, ” We/I just achieved ___”, “We’re/I’m learning a lot about ___”, “We’re/I’m working on a number of interesting projects right now”.
So there they are, 3 decisions leaders can make to make their work more manageable and save themselves from drowning. If you’re a leader I encourage you do these things and notice what a difference it makes to you and your team.