When Less Is More

Here’s some interesting leadership advice for all you go-getters out there: Stop trying to do so much.

That, essentially, is the counsel being given by J. Keith Murnighan, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, in a book called Do Nothing!: How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader.

Photo credit: jepoirrier

Murnighan, whose work was cited last week in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, argues that most effective leaders delegate almost everything they do to staff, keeping themselves free to oversee performance and think big. If they’re doing things right, they should be able to work a 35-hour week and still do great—while doing next to nothing with regard to day-to-day management.

When people are promoted, Murnighan explains, it is critical that they stop doing the technical work and start handing out more assignments that they used to own. “Successful leaders must shift gears and, literally, do less of what they used to do, even though they were good at it,” he explains.

Peter Drucker, while immensely prolific, was a big believer in doing less. “I have yet to see an executive, regardless of rank or station, who could not consign something like a quarter of the demands on his time to the wastepaper basket without anybody’s noticing their disappearance,” Drucker stated in The Effective Executive. “But I have never seen an executive confronted with his time record who did not rapidly acquire the habit of pushing at other people everything that he need not do personally.”

Drucker also agreed that managers who rise through the ranks are always at risk of failing to readjust to their new post. Indeed, as we’ve noted before, he felt it was the chief cause of failed promotions. “The things you did to get the promotion are almost certainly the wrong things to do now,” Drucker wrote in The Frontiers of Management. “It is not intuitively obvious to most people that a new and different job requires new and different behavior.”

For a new leader, chief among this behavior change may well be, in Drucker’s words, to “delegate with a certain abandon so that people have space in which to realize potential, in which to be accountable, in which to achieve.”

How feasible do you think a “do less” approach of only 35 hours a week is in managing a high- performing organization?

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