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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies


Another week, another set of leadership challenges discussed and considered, but the more leaders I work with and the more sectors and industries I support, the more I see patterns and the themes that emerge over and over again around the challenges that people face. This week alone, I've worked with leaders in the NHS, education, the third sector, recruitment and insurance. Last week it was financial services, technology and more teachers. Time and time again I'm hearing of workloads that don't match with available time and the need to become more effective at delegation.

In 1920, Frank Kafka wrote a short story called Poseidon, about the God of the Sea, but as with all his works, it wasn't a straightforward tale of Poseidon's ruling of his underwater kingdom. In Kafka's telling, Poseidon was working a desk job and despite his seniority and power, had never actually spent and time exploring and adventuring through the oceans, because he spent his days staring at figures and checking the work of others.

"He could have had assistants, as many as he wanted — and he did have very many — but since he took his job very seriously, he would in the end go over all the figures and calculations himself, and thus his assistants were of little help to him."

It struck me on reading this, that the plight of Poseidon mirrored that of many of the leaders I come across - sometimes I find myself working with the leader themself, at other times I work with the direct reports of such a leader - where a fear of letting go or delegating the work and having others do it to a lower standard, creates a bottleneck, a buildup of work and, ultimately, a risk of burnout. The work they do or the way they spend their day isn't the vision they have for themselves in that role.

Sometimes, the work I do in these situations is about helping leaders to delegate better. Sometimes it's helping them become more effective coaches, in order that when they do delegate, the work can done effectively and the team grow and develop. But a lot of the time, particularly when I'm working as a coach rather than delivering training sessions, it's less about building skills and much more about creating the awareness and insight and reflection in the leader that these problems exist.

Like any challenge that each of us face in our work or personal lives, the first stage to overcoming it is in recognising that the challenge exists. And often, in order to do that, we need to take the time to stop and think and reflect. Work days of those I support are very often back-to-back activity. In offices there are meetings and calls taking up every part of the working day. In schools, there are lessons to teach, plans to make, lunches and breaks to monitor and then the looming challenge of a unexpected incident to throw timetables and planned activities into disarray. I've likely told the story before of the banking executive I coached who had three hours worth of meetings in diary for every hour of the work week. Impossible levels of 'activity' which add little value and create a feeling of helplessness and can breed anxiety.

Very rarely do I encounter someone who has designated time in their work week to stop, think, reflect. It's all go, 100mph from weekend to weekend. Steven Covey talks about sharpening the saw in the final of his seven habits of highly effective people. Sometimes that means developing new skills or sharpening up old ones, for but for many leaders I encounter, that sharpening could very well involve reflection and increasing their own self awareness. Where am I spending my time? Where should I be spending my time? Is there a disparity and, if so, what's the root cause of this?

Life is busy for most people and this feeling is often driven by the sheer volume of options available to us to fill our time. It's not hard to go through life picking up tasks, one after the other, ending the day exhausted but with a longer to-do list than we started the day with. Stopping, in the face of all the busyness, seems antithetic to getting through it all, but we need to remind ourselves at times that it's not about getting through it all - it's about sifting through the silt, identifying the gold and getting through those things. Eliminate the 'busy work', identify things that you can delegate and make sure that you spend the bulk of your time and the very best of your energy on the things that really matter - at work and at home!

In the end, Poseidon seems to give up

"Poseidon became bored with the sea. He let fall his trident. Silently he sat on the rocky coast and a gull, dazed by his presence, described wavering circles around his head."

But who knows; maybe that time sitting no the rocks, staring at the sea and mulling things over was the most productive time he ever spent.

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