Want to Succeed as a Leader? Then You Need to Tighten Your Focus

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The modern leader’s biggest problems rarely stem from a lack of commitment or work ethic.

Most of us are quite willing to work hard, and often for a distressing number of hours. And it’s not as if we don’t understand time management; anyone who has made it to a significant leadership position has mastered the basics, or they wouldn’t occupy their current post.

The real problem is that many leaders haven’t learned to expand and refocus their understanding of time management to take into account the realities of their new positions — even as they accrue more and more power over the lives and livelihoods of more and more people.

The Catch-22 of leadership

As you climb the corporate ladder, your ability to focus on your strategic priorities becomes increasingly important. With every rung, your actions impact the company more than they ever have before. A high-level leader who can’t keep her head in the game does much more damage than a distracted front-line supervisor.

However, it’s a Catch-22, because the higher you go, the more distractions you have to deal with. As an individual contributor, you have enough trouble filtering out electronic distractions, drop-ins, and noisy neighbors. When you enter management, you suddenly have hordes of people who want a piece of your time, and many of them actually deserve one.

Like liberty, the price of advancement is eternal vigilance in your war against distraction. No matter how hard you work, if you can’t maintain a tight focus on the key activities that directly affect your organization’s success, you’ll never perform up to par—nor will your team, department, or organization.

At best, you’ll end up like Alice and the Red Queen in Wonderland, running as fast as you can just to stay in the same place. At worst, well, let’s just say disaster looms, especially if you just give up and stop caring.

When you ascend to a new position, start by closely examining the responsibilities that come with it, so you can determine precisely what’s most important for your organization. Then trim away everything else. Everything!

What the most effective leaders do

Among other things, the most effective leaders do the following:

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  • Make their meetings shorter and less frequent.
  • Hire staff to help them organize and prioritize their responsibilities.
  • Share their authority and distribute most of their responsibilities to key employees.
  • Learn to say “no” and make it stick.
  • Practice healthy life-habits to enhance personal performance.

What they don’t do is micromanage or solve minor problems. They don’t have the time!

Focus tightly on the things only you can do that bring in the maximum value for the organization. Disconnect yourself from your electronic leashes (handhelds, email, social media, and the Internet), forcing them back to their original functions as tools. You own them; they don’t own you. Use your staff to monitor them for you.

Benefits of a good staff

Upper-level leaders don’t have teams just so they can feel important; an executive staff exists to handle all the distractions and minor tasks that might divert the executive from his or her real responsibilities. A good staff can’t keep you from wasting your time if you really want to, but they can definitely keep other people from bugging you when you should be focusing on more important things.

Working on budgets, new marketing schemes, strategic planning, and your department’s priorities for the next fiscal year always trump anything less profitable. So stop dealing with drama and putting out brushfires — unless you happen to be a feature film director or a fire chief.

Even then, you undoubtedly have personnel in place to handle less important things for you, so let them.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

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