One of the most common questions I get when I am working with leaders who are trying to make a shift in how they lead themselves and others, goes something like this: "How am I supposed to do all of this other leadership and people stuff when it takes all of my time just to get my daily activities accomplished?"
It’s a valid question as long as your perspective is that leadership means doing more. The question goes away when you think about leadership as not what you do, but how you do it. What that common question sometimes illustrates, is a completely different perspective on what great leadership looks like.
I often like to put the answer in a little different context. Does Lance Armstrong stop pedaling the bike in order to focus on winning the race? We all know the answer to that question. Clearly he’s not focused on the mechanics of riding a bike when he’s trying to win a race with his team. He’s thinking about the next stage, the next climb, the next adjustment and then operating the bike with those thoughts in mind. One of my favorite Lance Armstrong quotes is "Winning is about heart, not just legs. It's got to be in the right place." Becoming a better leader doesn’t always mean that we change the things we do. It does mean that we change how we do those things by focusing on different things while we do them.
It may not mean that we spend more time in meetings, on calls, or in one on one conversations; It does mean we get more engagement from others and better results for the time we do spend. It may not mean that we write fewer emails but it does mean that the emails we write cause others to think differently about challenges and learn to tackle them on their own. It may not mean that we have to interview fewer people but it does mean that the people we hire contribute more to the company for longer periods of time.
Here’s a tangible example. I was working with a leader who received some tough feedback from his team about how he was conducting meetings. The team felt that it had little value for them to spend time on innovation or creative ideas because the leader had a clear set of actions that he wanted executed and anything that departed from that would usually get shot down in a hurry. He was focused on his agenda and the meetings were designed to help his team understand and execute that agenda. As a result, people simply started waiting for instructions rather than creating solutions.
I asked him to take me through the process he used to prepare for meetings, and as he described the steps, I asked him to tell me what he was focused on as he went through this preparation. He responded that he was thinking about all of the things that needed to get done. I then asked him what he thought might be different if he planned his meetings with a focus on all of the things he needed to learn from his team in order to lead the business more effectively. Sometimes, with a little luck, you have the opportunity to help create moments that truly change perspective and in that one instant, he understood the source of the humbling feedback.
His leadership challenge was not doing more things; it was doing the same things differently.
Leadership, when you take into account all of the things that are part of doing it effectively, looks hard and appears as if it would take an enormous amount of time. But most of us are already spending an enormous amount of time working anyway. The question is not about time; it’s about what we’re focused on while we’re spending it.