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Why great leaders always make time for their people

The most productive leaders do not lean on busyness as an excuse.

Why great leaders always make time for their people
[Photos: ultramansk/iStock; Ocean Ng/Unsplash]
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When Joe Biden was vice president of the U.S., he visited the country’s embassy in Paris. While there, he did something that challenged one of the most pervasive assumptions about leadership. He took time to greet everyone on the embassy staff: diplomatic aides, clerical workers, security guards, chefs. This unscheduled event wasn’t a superficial “meet and greet.” Rather, he made people feel that he truly had time for them and was doling it out in a generous fashion.

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The story of this visit is told by Charles Rivkin, then U.S. Ambassador to France, and he tells it not just to give insight into Biden’s character, but to make this point about leadership, which is “great leaders have time.”

If you are a leader who is constantly short of time, that proposition might make you squirm. Although you may grumble about not having time, deep down you probably assume it’s a natural condition of leadership to be low on divided attention. You may reason, “It comes with the territory.” Along with this sentiment, you may to yourself, “Of course I’m busy. I’m a leader.” It’s so easy to justify not having time: Your calendar is full; your decisions impact scores of people; you’re short-staffed; you have an urgent deadline coming up (again). Often added to this mix is the idea that the competition is gaining ground and the world is always rapidly changing.

Obviously, the whole organization depends on you operating in this way. Due to this mindset, you may assume that constant busyness signals that you’re important, needed, and in demand. Relatedly, you may assume that busyness is positively correlated with success: More busyness means more success. However, the irony is that when you are constantly sending a “busy signal,” people receive two quite different messages. These are that you’re overwhelmed and you’re unavailable.

The “busy signals” that you’re overwhelmed

A leader who is always busy does not seem to be in control—certainly not in control of time. You appear to be a victim of external circumstances, not their master, as if life were being done to you, not by you. Chronic busyness suggests that you don’t know how to prioritize or delegate. You’d rather blame others than take responsibility for your choices–especially your choices about time. Busyness suggests that you are not focusing on essentials, can’t see the big picture, and have not taken the “time out” required to get a grip on time.

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Furthermore, the leader who is caught in the busyness loop is always in reactive mode: putting out fires rather than stopping to find the cause of those fires. Indeed, the chronically busy leader may actually be the one starting those fires, for busy leaders create a lot of stress and burn through people fast (which doesn’t sound like successful leadership).

The “busy signals” that you’re unavailable

The other message people receive from your busy signal is that you’re unavailable. And that doesn’t sound like leadership either.

When people can’t find you, they aren’t getting the information they need to do their job well. They waste time just trying to get your time. They may worry that, when they do find you, because you’re so busy, you’ll be brittle or angry. The whole organization may even be working around the assumption that you have no bandwidth.

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The sad truth, however, is that when you are unavailable, it’s also you who is not getting the message. You’re not picking up vital information, feedback, and early warning signs. You’re not hearing the diverse perspectives and eccentric ideas that only manifest in unpredictable, uncontrolled, or unscheduled situations—so, exactly those times you don’t have time for. And you’re not participating in the relaxed, social interactions that build connection and cohesion in your organization. So, though you may be busy doing lots of important stuff, your finger is off the pulse. But imagine being a leader who does have time, and how this freeing up of resources changes a leader’s influence on everyone below them.

What becomes possible when you turn off your “busy” signals

Great leaders know that being available actually saves time. A leader who has time would not use “busy” as an excuse. Indeed, you would take responsibility for time. You would make time to get on top of time–prioritizing, delegating, and focusing on what matters. No matter how busy you might sometimes feel, you would prioritize being available, at least sometimes. This could take the form of doing simple, occasional walkabouts around the office, or it could be as heart-stopping as holding “office hours” on Zoom and waiting to see who shows up. Indeed, sitting there in an open room, sustaining the uncertainty, could be one of your greatest acts of leadership.

This isn’t to say, of course, that you don’t need to defend your time robustly. At times, you need to be completely unavailable in order to do something specific—for example, to complete a project, think deeply, or even, ahem, rest. You also have to go fast when necessary and get others to go fast when necessary. But all that is different from being perpetually, habitually, compulsively busy. And it doesn’t stop you from being truly available sometimes.

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Leaders who have time also have what poet David Whyte calls an “invitational personality.” Not just here in body—you’re here in spirit. You pause to connect. You know how to slow down and pay attention. You listen. People count on finding you welcoming and curious, not frazzled and unflappable. When they pass you in the corridor, people feel seen. As a result, your presence has a calming, reassuring effect on everyone else. It creates psychological safety and fosters honesty and trust. Importantly, it creates an organizational culture in which people actually have time for one another.

So while having time is important, even more important is how you show up. For example, when you’re with someone, do they feel you really have time for them?  When you are here, are you truly here, instead of worrying about getting to the next destination? Can you begin your next meeting not wrapped up in a rush, but from a place of generosity?  Therefore, the deepest implication of our phrase “great leaders have time” is that actually “great leaders are present.”

This is very good news for leaders who are consistently short on their time. For being present doesn’t actually take time: It only takes a moment—and you can do that right now.

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Martin Boroson and Carmel Moore are directors of the One Moment Company, coaching leaders and teams to break through the time barrier and wake up to the potential of this moment.