Being a busy leader has been fetishised by the modern business world.  The CEO or senior exec whose diary is booked for months to come or who schedules their day in five minute slots is seen as more effective, more virile and more dedicated.  However, are they genuinely more effective?  Is busy-ness really the sign of effective leadership?

Being busy

I’ll start by saying that of course we’re all busy at some points.  At moments of crisis or key phases in a company’s development every leader has burned the midnight oil and lived their role 24/7, that is the nature of leadership.  However, sustained, long term busy-ness is – I believe – detrimental to a leader and to their business.

Can a busy leader spare a moment to connect with their staff?  Do they have the opportunity to take time out to think about their business, to work on not in their organisation?  Have they got the space to reflect and let the unpredictable, unbidden moments of creativity wash over them?

I think not.  Perhaps it is true that the leaders of the very largest organisations have the infrastructure of support and advice around them that enables them to combine busy-ness with the opportunity to take time, but for most others I suspect that busy-ness means that the ‘non-essential’ aspects of leadership are left behind – until such point as they are found to not be so non-essential at all.

Our personal experience tells us that, instinctively, this is true.  We’ve all at some stage in our careers felt frustrated at the unavailability of a manager who’s sign off is required for a project we know to have great potential.  We’ve all seen – or been – the CEO who’s struggle to manage their business in the now has meant that they’ve failed to prepare for what’s next.  We’ve all experienced that moment of revelation when we’ve stepped back and taken the time to look at a problem afresh.

And the costs of this are real.  Staff who feel stifled by lack of senior attention will leave; a company’s long term growth will be compromised by a lack of forward thinking; and the failure to creatively address opportunities and challenges will make a company stagnate.

Burying busy-ness

But how can this be addressed?  What can senior leaders do to escape the whirlwind of activity that is consuming them?  As advisers, how can we help senior leadership teams to create the space that lets them lead effectively?

Firstly, you need to look at what is making you busy.  In my experience, leaders, particularly of growth companies, are too often unwilling to let go of non-core tasks that take up their time unnecessarily.  If you’ve been overseeing finance since you started the business it’s a wrench to outsource it to someone else.  If you’ve been responsible for hiring from day one of your business you may feel unwilling to let someone else take the reins.  But it’s a part of growth that a leader’s role must change.  You must be willing to let go and free yourself to focus on the tasks that matter, not on those that be just as adequately undertaken by others.

Secondly, you need to trust.  As a leader, and particularly as a founder, it is too easy to feel that only you are capable of doing or overseeing a job most effectively.  In order to grow and to free your valuable time you need to trust those around you and let them prove to you that they can do it – and that as a result they can develop and grow in order to take even more tasks off your hands.  Your trust empowers those around you and gives you the opportunity to refocus on what really matters.

Thirdly, you need to facilitate serendipity.  Scheduling some breaks in your time where you’re not in a meeting or buried in a document will open the door to the unexpected moments where great things can happen.  It might be half an hour walking around the office floor talking to team members, connecting with them on a human level or hearing the ideas they may have.  It could be as simple as walking between meetings rather than rushing into an Uber, using the time of relative calm to think more deeply about the challenges you face and looking at them in a new and reflective light.

Finally, you need to not be scared of not being busy.  Most, if not all, leaders have a silent fear that perhaps they’re not so central to the future of their business as they may think and that being busy is a proof of the fact that the business will fall apart without them.  Whilst it’s probably true that most leaders aren’t as important as they think, being busy isn’t making you more important or more effective, its actually stopping you from focusing on the areas where you could be adding most value – long term perspective and creative thinking.

Beyond busy

One can’t pretend that there are limits to an agenda of anti-busy-ness.  A CEO who isn’t a bit busy is probably not doing their job properly.  It is, as in all things, about finding a balance between the demands of the day-to-day and the wider opportunities of the future.  The right busy/calm balance is a personal choice dictated by the individual and the role but some balance there must be.

Paddy Herridge is a SynergyMode advisor and is a communications expert with over 20 years’ experience. You can read more about him here, or connect on LinkedIn here.