LEADERS WHO ARE “SO BUSY”

but busy at what?

Last week I was talking with a leader who opened our conversation by saying, “I am…just…so busy.” And he said it in a positive way. He was happy about it.

How often do you hear this? How often do you say it yourself?

Here’s the question I asked this busy leader:

Are you busy on the right things?

Leaders naturally have full calendars. Many of us wear “I’m so busy” as a badge of our significance. Contrast today with previous generations, where a measure of success was the amount of time you spent on leisure time activities, not work activities. Think country clubs, garden clubs and afternoon teas.

Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Paharia, and Anat Keinan write in HBR that, “by telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after, which enhances our perceived status.” *

But busyness in leaders does not equal productivity. In fact, sometimes, it indicates the opposite. Socrates warned, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

Peter Drucker always made this distinction between efficient and effective leaders.

Efficient leaders get a lot of things done.
Effective leaders get the right things done.

So if you are a leader who is “so busy,” measure to see if you are busy on the right things. Here’s one way to check yourself. Break your busyness down into “offensive” tasks and “defensive” tasks.

1. Offensive tasks. These are activities where you put points on the board. You are proactive. You execute against your game plan. For example:

  • The sales leader reaches out to potential customers.
  • The CMO creates a marketing plan for a new product.
  • The Head of HR initiates a search for a key role in the company.
  • The CTO engineers a new customer feature to enhance the company’s website.
  • The CEO convenes a meeting to accomplish specific goals.

2. Defensive tasks. These are activities that are necessary to keep points on the board. Like playing defense in football, you are in a reactive posture. You attempt to hold the ground you’ve already taken. For example:

  • The sales leader calculates revenue for an upcoming board meeting.
  • The CMO reviews vendor contracts with the legal team.
  • The Head of HR answers health plan questions from existing employees.
  • The CTO helps programmers with a computer glitch.
  • The CEO convenes a meeting to review past results.

Do you see the difference? All the examples — both offensive and defensive — could justify “I’m so busy.” But only the offensive tasks represent movement, change, growth.

You decide. Are you putting additional points on the board — helping your company grow? Or, are you busy maintaining the points you have?

Both types of tasks are necessary in an organization. But generally your stakeholders reward you for growing, not just surviving. And the more senior you are, the more the growth piece matters in your job description.

Try this quick exercise to examine how you spend your time.

  • Look at your calendar for this week.
  • Label each event as either offensive or defensive (or color-code: green = offensive, red = defensive).
  • Evaluate which dominates your time.
  • Consider: What adjustments do you need to make toward growing, adding value?

Remember, because you are so busy, you will probably have to STOP doing some old tasks to START doing some new ones. (Stay tuned for an upcoming post on effective delegation.)

Effective leaders get busy on the right things. Play a little more offense this week.

*“Why Americans Are So Impressed By Busyness,” from Harvard Business Review.


Speaking of busy, we’ve been that here at McKinnon & Company. To respond to growing demand for my particular methodology of leadership coaching, last year I invited two colleagues to join me in the work. Read more about them here. I am really glad to have them on the team. Additional professionals will be joining us soon. Stay tuned!