Published 2/1/2014
J. Keith Murnighan, PhD

Doing Too Much As a Leader Doesn’t Work

Being a leader can be extremely demanding, especially in a 24/7 culture that is increasingly on the go. Leaders, like most people, naturally react to increased demands by doing more. In fact, leaders do far too much. It turns out that leaders would be much more effective if they did less.

Although doing nothing seems counterintuitive, it can, in the end, be remarkably effective, for several reasons. A leader’s job is not to do physical work; instead, leaders need to focus on a small set of activities that are oriented toward thought more than they are toward work. Specifically, leaders should facilitate and orchestrate their team members’ performance; they should think of great strategies and help others implement them; they should plan for the future; and they should take a wide view of the landscape, without ignoring key details, so they can confidently choose the right forks in the road.

In contrast, most leaders let their natural tendencies get in the way. They try to do too much, and they never find the time to do their essential job—leading. Instead, they end up doing jobs that other people on their teams could and should do.

Leaders need time to think, to help people do their jobs better, and to construct and evaluate a variety of feasible alternatives so that they can make better decisions. Broadly speaking, they also need to add a touch of organizational control to make sure the final results turn out okay. When leaders do too much, they have neither the time nor the resources to engage their real responsibilities. They neglect the essentials, and everyone suffers as a result.

Physician leaders
Physicians who are good at what they do tend to be the ones who are promoted to leadership positions. But what does being a brilliant orthopaedic surgeon have to do with being a good leader?

Although surgeons and leaders may share many characteristics, being promoted to a leadership position means that surgeons must stop doing what they have been doing very well and start doing things that they were not trained for. Being a great leader in medicine has little to do with being a great surgeon. In fact, the time that is needed for one tends to preclude the other.

Continuing to do what led to a promotion does not foster continued success as a leader. For example, engineers who take over design teams must stop doing the designs themselves; teachers who become principals must stop teaching; and chefs who have opened their fifth restaurant must stop cooking. As people move up, they must resist their natural tendencies to do more. If they don’t, they will overmanage and everyone will pay the price.

This requires a major shift in how leaders approach their jobs, as well as tremendous, unnatural insight. They also need to resist the pull that comes from being rewarded for an activity that is no longer desired.

Do less, effectively
Do-nothing leadership is effective for all kinds of normal, hard-working, achievement-oriented leaders who love their families as much as or more than their jobs and who would love to think that they had the time to spend with their friends. The strange idea that doing less can mean achieving more is designed specifically for accomplished, smart, hard-working leaders who also want to have the time to think and to enjoy life (at least a little). Thus, firm resistance to the relentless demands of work is an absolute requirement.

The following 10 rules can help leaders do less, effectively:

  • Identify your team members’ talents. Know what your team members are capable of so that you can let them use those skills. They will be happy to show off their talents.
  • Trust more. It’s obvious that you should hire trustworthy people who have skills. Then, it pays to let them do what they can do and trust them to do it well. Leaders have two choices: to trust people or to micromanage them. The first one beats the second by a mile.
  • Facilitate their performance. What would life be like if all of your team members lived up to their maximum potential? This question always generates a very positive answer. Try to achieve it by helping people do well.
  • Walk the floor. This is the first rule for a CEO, and everyone who leads a team is a mini-CEO. When you walk the floor, ask people how they are doing and how you can help make their jobs easier. They won’t ask for a lot and they’ll appreciate the personal attention.
  • Don’t pay too much attention to performance goals. Performance goals are great: they push people to perform. So by all means use them, but once they’ve been shared with the team, don’t let them drive behavior. Shift the focus to less obvious but still exceedingly important goals such as learning, a key goal for leaders that can easily get lost under the weight of performance goals.
  • Start at the end. What do you ultimately want to achieve? This should be constantly at the front of your mind. Once you know your ultimate goal, work backwards to the present to identify the most efficient means for achieving it.
  • Release control (deviously). Almost every professional wants to work on a team that’s democratic. At the same time, leaders can’t help feeling that they must retain control. How to achieve both? Structural control—put structures in place that influence people even when the leader is not around.
  • Bear down warmly. One of my students put it perfectly: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care about them.” If you don’t care about your team members, they won’t be motivated to work for you. But you must also push them so that they can achieve more than they might ever imagine. How to solve this seeming inconsistency? Tough love—care enough about your people to push them to their maximum potential.
  • De-emphasize profits. Leaders who love what they do want to share it with their customers; they want their customers to benefit from their products and services, even as they benefit themselves. Thus, rather than maximizing profits, maximize value—it’s far more sustainable.
  • Follow the “Leadership Law.” Leadership is a social activity; no individual can do it all alone. Thus, great leaders must put themselves second in the work equation and follow the Leadership Law: Think first of the reactions you want and only then determine what actions you can take to achieve them.

J. Keith Murnighan, PhD, is the Harold H. Hines Jr Distinguished Professor at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, and the author of Do Nothing! How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader. He can be reached at keithm@kellogg.northwestern.edu