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What is ‘Busy and Important’ leadership?

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As a consultant, I work in a range of organisations and observe a plethora of leaders in action … or is it action? One day a person in the project team I was recently working with asked me, ‘What do you think of leadership in this place?’ The question made me reflect on Ernest Hemingway’s statement, ‘Never confuse movement with action.’

High-paced movement, coupled with earnest faces, personified the business area. From my view, leaders seemed to operate at threshold … as if urgency was the only condition in which outcomes could manifest. The description I provided was, ‘busy and important leadership’. ‘Please explain,’ she replied.

I explained, ‘it’s like leaders here have ants crawling all over them. They rush in, try to brush off the ants, and implore you to help them get some off. They then leave you with those ants and then rush somewhere else to get someone else to brush off the same … or different … ants. There never seems to any engagement with others about how to stop the spread of ants.’

She replied, ‘yeah there’s a lot of hurry up and busyness around this place. Lots of tell and not a lot of ask.’ Paradoxically, transformation appeared in the title of the business unit on the organisational chart, yet leadership was personified by frantic transactional incidents.

There is little doubt that people need to be active and productive and that getting things done is vital. However, doing needs to be worthwhile. Leaders must avoid being trapped in urgency because busyness can be seductive. Leaders then equate busyness with importance, e.g. I’m busy therefore I’m important or I’m important therefore I must act busy. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, busyness is defined by distracting detail and unfocused movement.

Innovation and reality collideTo determine priorities, leaders often apply the ‘worth it’ principle to apportion time.

 Worth it = time pressure v usefulness x perception of importance.

Unfortunately, time and energy are two different things. Busyness influences our assessment of ‘worthwhile’ activities based on time and quickly diverts energy away from vital activities, such as leading people and driving strategy.

Busyness and ill-directed energy often means that leading to survive has more prominence in modern organisations than leading to inspire others. Are you trapped by busyness? Is your energy sapped by the micro?

If you want to flip from busy and important leadership to productive and valued leadership to harness energy for leading and action:

  1. map your energy expenditure
  2. de-busy yourself
  3. re-connect with people and strategy.

As Thomas Edison once said, ‘Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.’

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