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Do Less, Achieve More

The natural tendency of a leader is to take action. Kellogg School Professor J. Keith Murnighan says too many leaders fall victim to what he calls “the curse of overmanaging.”  

The two words “leader” and “relax” are rarely connected. Far too many leaders have never experienced a calm, quiet day at work. Corporate life is incredibly demanding, but too many leaders simply do too much, and there are some compelling reasons why.

  • Think about who our ancestors were and how they continue to affect us. Our hunter-gatherer forefathers and mothers benefited tremendously from being active: self-preservation a million years ago depended on it. All of us exist because our ancestors survived, and they survived because they were constantly aware, constantly on guard and constantly seeking out food. Thus, evolution has programmed us to be active. 

  • Leaders are promoted to their positions for doing things, such as sales, engineering or other technical activities, and we all have the natural tendency to repeat what we’ve been rewarded for.

It’s no wonder that leaders do too much.

But a leader’s job is not to do things. As people move up in an organization’s hierarchy, they need to resist these natural tendencies to act. If they don’t, they will overmanage and their team members will suffer unnecessarily. Instead, they need to focus on a small set of essential activities: facilitating and orchestrating their team members’ performance; thinking of great strategies and helping others implement them; and taking a broad, comprehensive view of their terrain while also noticing key details.

How can a leader accomplish all these things when they are busy fighting fires all day long? The answers are not complicated, but they aren’t intuitive either.

Trust more
Everyone knows how critical it is to hire good people. But too many leaders don’t follow through effectively. Thus, they must also, first and foremost, trust more. When I ask professionals how they respond to being trusted more than they expected, every single one of them have stepped up their efforts to show their supervisor that they were worthy of their trust. Thus, if you are working with professionals who care about their jobs and their work, trusting them more can lead to immediate returns for both of you. Do your homework (e.g., never hire a convicted criminal to handle a cash business). But if you have hired good people, why not trust them more?

Tough love
People don’t care how much a leader knows until they know that their leader cares about them. Thus, leaders must get to know their people and must show them that they care. At the same time, they must push them to achieve more than they can imagine. How to combine these seemingly contradictory directives? Tough love – care enough about people to push them to their maximum potential. It’s what good teachers and good parents do – it also works for leaders. The downside, unfortunately, is that your team won’t like you for it. But that’s just reality for leaders.

De-emphasize profits
It also pays, paradoxically, to de-emphasize profits. If you are passionate about what you do, about your products and services, you want to share them with your customers so that they can get all of the value that you can provide. Leaders who care about what they do naturally try to maximize value rather than profits. Then everyone wins and, as a result, they create relationships that are both mutually profitable and sustainable.

Ask questions
Great leaders ask questionslots of questions. Mike Krzyzewski, the amazingly successful basketball coach at Duke University, asks questions of his players all the time. The irony is that, as one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time, he is still asking his young players questions. It helps him lead in three ways, simultaneously: every time he asks a question he conveys respect, he builds trust and he gets information.

Follow the leadership law
Finally, it pays for leaders to follow what I call the leadership law: think first of the reactions you want and only then determine what actions you can take to achieve them. This is directly counter to our natural tendencies, as we typically think first of what we will do as leaders. Instead, it is far more effective to put ourselves second in the work equation – and put the reactions that we would like to see first.

Many of these ideas are not easy to put into practice. As leaders we naturally feel that we should act. But doing less can help leaders unleash the wealth of human talent in their organizations. It doesn’t have to be difficult. We just need to get past those natural tendencies to do too much. Although leaders who repeat a “Do Nothing!” mantra will not be entirely successful at doing nothing, it can help them do less, and as they do less, their team members can do more. It’s a simple picture, and remarkably effective.


About the Author: J. Keith Murnighan is the Harold H. Hines Jr. Distinguished Professor of Risk Management at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, where he teaches in Kellogg’s MBA and Executive Education programs around the world. A consultant and trainer, he is the author of seven books on management topics. His most recent is Do Nothing: How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader (Portfolio/Penguin 2012).

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