Carving Out the Time to Be an Effective Leader

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One of the greatest challenges that leaders face is finding the time to actually lead. Many have told me how they wish there was more time to think about the future and to simply be more intentional in their role as managers and developers of a team. On too many occasions, they put this off until everything else is taken care of. Unfortunately, we all know that "everything else" never gets completely done.

Once I asked a typically overworked manager what prevented him from finding the time to demonstrate the leadership that he knew was necessary for his people. I really appreciated his answer. He did not say that his time was spent saddling up his white horse and rushing off to save the day -- dealing with perplexing challenges that were much too big for others. Rather, he said most of his day was spent rectifying the mistakes he had made the previous day. He was, of course, exaggerating but also very serious in his reflection.

The truth of the matter is we all make mistakes. However, what I have discovered is that frequently mistakes are not about monumental strategic decisions that went awry. Instead, they're more about interactions with people that leave us dissatisfied or regretful. We lost our cool and became overly aggressive if not somewhat hostile during a disagreement. We became distracted during an important conversation and tuned out the other person. We postponed (again) a development opportunity discussion, which was genuinely important to someone else. We grew impatient with the lack of progress on a project and did not take time to listen to the underlying causes. You probably get the picture.

Keep in mind that these examples are just the ones we are aware of. How many other miscues might we have made that did not even register with us -- but did with others?

I encourage you to take some time to reflect on the way you typically interact with those around you. Thoughtfully assess the impact you are having on your team. Are you leaving them better off -- or more confused, frustrated, or feeling judged? Are you fully present for them -- or only listening with half an ear? If you could have a "do-over" for one of these circumstances, which would it be?

Remember that you demonstrate leadership one conversation, one interaction, at a time. You must be committed to making each one as positive and productive as possible. Reflect on situations that did not go so well. Pinpoint what caused them to go off the rails. And identify what you will try to do differently the next time around.

Here is one hint that you might find helpful in reducing some of those easy-to-make relationship mistakes. How different might it be if you approached every conversation or interaction by asking yourself, "What can I do in this moment to make others feel more powerful, competent, and able to do more than they think they can?"

Think about that question for a moment. If you did this, might it reduce the reflex to lash out when others are being stubborn or disrespectful? Might it remind you to set aside the items on your own personal agenda and remain focused on the other person's growth, development and success? Might it make you think of yourself more as a leader -- not just a boss or co-worker?

As you reflect on your answers, also consider this: If your boss approached every interaction with you in this fashion, would that not be a good thing?

In case you are wondering whether it requires a great deal of time to ponder this question, the answer is "no." It mostly serves to put you in a leadership frame of mind, to remind you to be fully present in your role as someone who develops others. A detailed, written action plan for each engagement is not required!

Leaders must work with all kinds of people, including those who are in some way difficult, perhaps even frustrating on occasions. That is part of the territory. If you simply blame the poor outcome of an interaction on the other person or don't care enough to make it better, don't expect those relationships to improve.

Going forward, try to make each interaction as good as it can be. Being human, you will still make daily mistakes. But over the long haul, people will view you more as an ally they need, rather than another reason why they are not thrilled to come to work. And who knows? It might even reduce the time you once needed for damage control, providing you with a bit more time to lead proactively.

Steve Coats is managing partner of International Leadership Associates, a development, education and consulting firm. He can be reached at

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