Becoming a 90% Leader

Being less busy and more effective

Danny Taylor

Busyness is the bane of a leader’s life. Some like the prestige it offers, others collapse under its weight, but the impact on those being led is always bad. Employees are too often confronted with leaders who are reactive, rarely available, and who transfer excessive pressure to others. This is poor form. Leaders should provide context and confidence. They should remain calm and delegate work effectively. And they should do all this with time to spare. Why? Because this available time is where the gold is. Where the most significant value-adding work occurs.

What’s said and what’s understood


You get in a lift. Or participate in banter prior to an online meeting. Listen to what leaders with a sense of self-importance are saying. What’s the common theme? “I’m so busy and I’m so significant”. You can feel their ego filling up the space. But why would they do this? Because in a world of appearances, it seems to most of us that this looks good. “I look good to others if I’m seen to be busy”. “Others will think I’m superior”. “They will envy me”. Some will envy them. But others will dislike them and think they’re just big headed.

On the job

But even if it’s only the boasters who talk in lifts, there are other leaders quietly living busy lives. Spreading their impact wherever it reaches. Filling up their diaries so everyone needs to wait a month for access; as if leadership operated on the same basis as waiting to get your oven fixed. Some do this on purpose. It’s their style and they feel proud of their approach. Others do it because their boss is the same or unrealistic about what they expect. Yet work at middle and senior levels is about a combination of “known” work that needs to be done and “unknown” work that emerges as opportunity. Most of the former should be delegated and supported, the latter retained. But that’s not how busy leaders operate. They hold onto the known work, and spend 110% of their time focused on that, while the opportunities are ignored.

How employees react

Everyone feels on the backfoot. Not able to fly, but crushed into work below their capability. Doing spill-over work for the boss, rather than being given the reigns to make a more significant impact. Employees rush to cover their tracks, making sure nothing goes wrong, and scurrying to deal with their boss’ potential irritations. They end up scratchy and irritated themselves. All this is an exaggeration to make a point. Egocentric or overwhelmed bosses, creating emotional havoc with their people. And the important work is sidelined.

Effective leaders

Leaders need to be action oriented. It’s essential. But so is reflection. The problem is always extremes. This or that, rather than this and that. Some people have a bias to activity. They like filling every moment with chores. It makes them feel good, that they’ve achieved a lot. But it can also be a defence against having to think. As Steve Jobs said, most leaders don’t understand why an organisation does what it does, and don’t try to find out. Many feel unable to reflect and would rather just work on autopilot. They’re wired for activity. They can’t find the balance between being active and reflective. They can’t slow down, create space, and think for themselves. But too much reflection is also a problem. It can lead to inaction and procrastination. Overly reflective people get anxious about being forced to make decisions. In business, the action oriented are more successful, but the people who can integrate both are the most successful.

The 90% leader

Leaders make many small decisions every day. So much so they’re not aware of it. These decisions are the wallpaper of leadership. The background. But it’s the bigger challenges that we most consider when thinking about decision making and leadership. They’re much less in number but much more impactful. These are the furniture of leadership. The things people notice. Splice © 2020. All rights reserved. 2022 The balanced leader has an action orientation toward the myriad of small decisions, and a reflectiveness towards the larger. They don’t sweat the small stuff. But they know the difference between small, medium, and large decisions, and apply appropriate reflection to the latter. Because they develop an instinct for this overall balance, they demonstrate a capacity for creating space. Not just for themselves, but others too. They go from looking like someone who is working 110% to someone working 90%. Yet their whole approach looks and feels like it’s more effective. And that’s because it is. The 90% leader isn’t working any less hard, but their allocation of time is different. Their reflective capacity, and that of people around them, is valued as both a compass and support-act for the organisation’s direction and alignment. This leader feels much more effective and approachable to employees. They’re accessible. But they also help employees to in turn maximise their own time. The implication is… “Don’t bring me small issues. I trust you to just get on with those. But consult me where you’re stuck or unsure on a medium or larger issue, and I’ll give you my time”.

Time to think and what to do with it

The main thing we pay executives for is their judgement. To assess what’s in front of them, to navigate challenges and opportunities, and to guide others to a place where outcomes are maximised. But leaders can’t do this without creating space in their own working lives to think through significant issues. This extra space however should not just be private… getting away from everyone to think. While some of this is essential, it’s also important to be available to others. Once employees realise this, they will treat their leader like a coach. To run things by them, to get their input, and to do this on the run, as they realise how valuable it is to access their leader’s perspective. Over time, this becomes a more spontaneous way of being. Such leaders aren’t always allocating specific time for spontaneous conversations but have enough spaciousness in the way they go about things to deal with the “5- or 10-minute conversation”, when required.

How effective leaders make this happen

The 90% leader leans into four issues. Each one makes a difference, but the total is greater than the sum of the parts…

1. They raise their work to the appropriate level of complexity
If a leader is busy, it’s also likely that the value they’re adding is minimal or nonexistent. They’re either choosing to work, or being pulled down, to a level of complexity below what is required. So, it’s important to ask and get clear about “the value I need to be adding to maximise my effectiveness?… for my leader, for my people, and for my organisation?”. Once clear about this, it’s easier to see why this isn’t currently happening, and what work needs to be reallocated.

2. They delegate work but ensure they’re available for support
It’s important to stop micro-managing the work of your people. There is a difference between having regular feedback sessions with a person doing the work, and doing the work yourself or telling them how to do so. The role of the leader is to be clear about desired outcomes, clear about the necessary resources, and clear about the support people need to do their jobs. And be available to coach along the way. If the person is new, then extra help may be required, but this should only be temporary. If the person is not able to do their role, this should be addressed via development support or performance discussions.

3. They listen more and act less
The busy leader is too action oriented. The result is people not feeling heard, and that’s because their leader isn’t listening. They might delude themselves that they do but listening only really happens if a person stops themselves from interfering, stops themselves from talking, and genuinely believes that others may know more than they do on many issues.

4. They construct their work to be 90% leaders
Like most problems that are a habit, it’s important to be deliberate in trying to change. If this article resonates, you’re likely to do something about it. Or at least give it a go. But it means commitment and sticking to it over at least the next three months.

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