The most surprising principle of good leadership? Don’t be busy.

If you’re busy as a leader, you’re doing it wrong.

The best leaders seem to be the busiest. If you’re busy, you’re getting a bunch of stuff done: You’re tending to your team, you’re making stuff happen. Being busy as a leader is a good characteristic…Right?

Well, quite the opposite. Being busy as a leader is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.

Recently, I interviewed Michael Lopp, VP of Engineering of Slack, who emphasized this for me:

“If you’re too busy doing the actual work, as a manager, that’s a huge mistake.”

The best leaders create an environment for people to do their best work. This means helping employees navigate what’s unclear, providing context about what needs to happen, and showing a path forward about why the work matters. But you can’t do that as a leader if you’re on the phone with clients all the time, buried in your email inbox, or running around to business development meetings all day.

As leaders, we need open space to listen to what’s not being said within our team. We need gaps in our day to observe what and who the bottlenecks are. We need the time and patience to ask questions to better understand what can be improved, and to be empathetic to an employee.

You can’t make decisions that are strategic and well thought-out, or map out a company’s vision, if you’re busy. You can’t truly anticipate nor respond to the needs of your team if you’re busy.

The best leaders choose not to be busy.

Yet, how many of us are stuck in the weeds of doing the work? How many of us are busy?

I’m guilty of this, just as much as anyone.

I was reminded of this today, in fact. I got breakfast today with a fellow CEO who runs a successful media company in Chicago. A videographer by trade, she found herself in the weeds of the work, editing videos and being on film shoots more than she needed to be. Her natural state was in getting the work done — and being busy as hell.

She told me, “Claire, the biggest transition I had to navigate was from going from doing the work to being a leader. Because I now know that being busy with doing the work itself doesn’t make me a good leader.”

I nodded my head, reflecting on my own penchant to be “buried in the work.” Answering emails, taking meetings, doing marketing tasks… even writing this blog post! Sure, some of that is needed depending on the size and stage of your company. For any leader, there are times when you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get busy doing the actual work.

But this CEO and Michael Lopp’s point is that the busier you are, the less room you have for the stuff as a leader only you are responsible for : Recruiting folks, guiding the culture, charting out the long-term team vision. And if you’re too busy with the work, you won’t do those things.

Busy with the actual work means less time, energy, and focus devoted to being a good leader. Being busy as a leader is a downfall, not a desired state.

Let’s not confuse the two.


 

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

One Reply to “The most surprising principle of good leadership? Don’t be busy.”

  1. Really thought-provoking concept. I tend to agree with you. I can say, as a low-level engineer, I really appreciate it when my manager(s) shoulder responsibility and act as an extension of my own desires, rather than having me get pulled away from the engineering stuff to deal with the people stuff.

    Though, I do get conflicted sometimes about leaning on my managers too much. Part of me wants to feel empowered to do more things and step out of my comfort zone. But, I also acknowledge that a lot of that stuff isn’t really my main focus and may not be a true value-add in terms of my daily routine. Just thinking out loud….

    Reply

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