George Ambler

Helping Leaders Grow


Busy is Killing Leadership

Busy is killing leadership! Considering the experience and competence of leaders, their position and influence, their authority, the resources that they command, too many spend their time making the routine happen, instead of investing their time and energy into those few significant things that will create the organisation’s future. They fail to take advantage of the opportunities they have to make a real difference. One of the key reasons is that leaders find themselves distracted by busyness.

“Never confuse movement with action.” – Ernest Hemingway

What is busyness? Simply put, busyness is when we have too much work. It’s the drug of the 21st century. Busyness happens when we react to what’s in front of us, without stopping to consider if it matters or not. We get caught up in the urgency of the moment, soon it becomes a habit and before we know it we end up busy. We become trapped in the urgent.

Leaders fall into the busyness habit when they allow weeks and months drift by, attending numerous meetings and drifting from activity to activity without stopping to consider if what they’re doing is making any difference.

Beware the barrenness of a busy life - Socrates

How Busyness Kills Leadership

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” – Peter Drucker, “Essential Drucker: Management, the Individual and Society”

You become busy when you mistake activity for productivity, when you mistake efficiency for effectiveness and when you mistake more for better.

You become busy when you ask “What’s next?” rather then stopping to consider “Why this?”

Busyness kills leadership as:

  • Busyness is fake work, it has the appearance of work, but doesn’t deliver results.
  • Busyness gets you doing unnecessary work. When unnecessary work is done time is wasted.
  • Busyness is seductive as it makes you feel important.
  • Busyness traps you into using your time and energy for doing good work rather than investing it in your great work.
  • Busyness robs you of the capacity needed to reflect and to think deeply about important issues and decisions of the day.
  • Busyness keeps you reacting rather than responding and initiating.

The real danger with busyness is not the number of tasks we find ourselves doing. Rather it’s that we find ourselves doing a whole lot of work that is unnecessary, unimportant or should not be done by us at all.

Busyness Prevents Leaders from Accomplishing their Great Work

“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.” ― Peter Drucker

Busyness kills leaders, it causes them to spend time on good work rather than  great work. Leaders need to focus relentlessly on what’s required to make a meaningful difference.

You cannot afford to spend your time on what’s urgent, easy and routine. As a leader you need to be effective, to work smarter not harder, to work strategically not frantically with lots of activity and limited results.

Busyness kills leaders, it causes them to spend time on good work rather than  great work.

Busy leaders are quick to tell you how busy they are, they wear their busyness like a badge of honour. It’s like being busy means you’re important, that you matter. However as leaders we need to avoid frantic activity, activity that on the surface looks like productivity, but is really just busy work. Busyness has become such a large part of current corporate culture that we often loose sight of how our efforts contribute to what matters.

Effectiveness requires focus and you cannot spread yourself thin trying to do too much. You need to say no to the urgent and yes to your great work. Busyness is the opposite of effective leadership. If your day is filled with things to do then it’s too fill. Don’t confuse activity with effectiveness. Don’t confuse busy work or even good work with great works. It’s the job of the leader to focus on accomplishing great work.

Are you in the busyness trap?

“Effective executives concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results. They force themselves to set priorities and stay with their priority decisions. They know that they have no choice but to do first things first – and second things not at all. The alternative is to get nothing done.” – Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

If you’re not careful busyness will quietly take over your life without you even being aware of it. Leaders are often not aware of the extent to which busyness has taken control of their life. So you may be asking how do I know if I am in a busyness trap? Well, the following warning signs are strong indicators that you’re in a busyness trap.

  • A lack of clarity as to what constitutes great work.
  • Doing what does not need to be done.
  • Allow the agenda and priorities of others to set your agenda and what’s considered important.
  • Allowing urgent events and interruptions to distract you from the important.
  • Attending meetings where your participation is not necessary.
  • Not enough time set aside to think and reflect.
  • Meetings that don’t achieve anything.
  • Too busy to set time aside necessary to make important decisions.
  • A lack of systems so you find yourself reacting and reinventing decision making processes.

One of the best ways to identify busyness is to look for instances where there is a lot of effort or activity and limited results. It’s in these areas that attention is required to manage more effectively.

  • Are you in a busyness trap?
  • What are the few major areas that define your great work?
  • What do you need to stop doing so you can give more attention to the your great work?


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  1. I refer to this as the false sense of accomplishment. We complete tasks and quite a lot of them, but do we solve the problems which provide greater value to our clients?

  2. I think I have escaped this trap, but I see and hear “busyness talk” a lot.

    Being productive requires constant thinking what should NOT be done.

  3. I know what you mean.

    To break out of the loop, I start asking simple questions in the hall:

    What are our three wins for this week?

    What are our three wins for this month?

    What are our three wins for the quarter?

    I find a question-driven approach works wonders because people get resourceful when they have to answer a smart question that they know matters.

    Gradually, people start to remember that it’s not about doing activities or getting things done. It’s about flowing value, and making it meaningful along the way.

    The win brings out the fun factor and puts the spotlight on value as a first-class citizen.

  4. George, great post! This is the shadow side of productivity – the “push” to do more can lead to the exact malaise you describe. Your suggestion to stop and consider “Why this? rather than “What’s next?” is a powerful way to break the cycle.

  5. James Strock

    Terrific reminder. Activity is not accomplishment.

  6. GH

    Nice article with some great reminders that I’ll be sharing with my management team.
    I especially like the ‘why this?’ line of questioning.
    Working in an organisation that is constantly growing and changing where we are no doubt genuinely busy these prompts will really help.

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