This is an online only chapter for What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done that didn’t fit in the printed book. It goes in part seven, “Living this Out.”
How a wrong understanding of getting things done can get in the way of your ability to lead.
High performers are often elevated to the executive level and then left to figure out on their own how to operate successfully in their new roles. – Scott Elbin
It is possible for a focus on personal productivity to ruin your ability to lead.
Why Do 40% of New Executives Fail Within 18 Months?
One of the most helpful books that I’ve read on leading in an organization is Scott Eblin’s The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success. Eblin points out that “40 percent of new executives fail within eighteen months of being named to their positions.”
That’s an incredible statistic.
A typical response might be that this is just the Peter Principle at work—people have been promoted to their level of incompetence. But I think Elbin is right that this actually doesn’t make much sense. Most of these people are talented, bright, and motivated. It is unlikely that such a high percentage of them have been promoted beyond their ability.
What is actually going on is that these people are making a classic—but very easy to understand—mistake: when they got into their new leadership positions, they kept doing all the things that got them there. They didn’t realize that leadership is a different sort of thing than management and, even more significantly, than being an individual contributor.
And so they failed. They acted like an individual contributor in a leadership role, and so they ended up doing all the wrong things. They probably even did them extremely well—for it was their capacity for individual contribution that likely got them promoted to a level of more formal leadership—but since they were doing the wrong things, it backfired and undermined their effectiveness in the role.
Don’t Confuse the Roles of the Producer and the Leader
Much of the time, people reach positions of formal leadership because they have proven themselves as fantastic individual contributors. They have done excellent work coding pages for the website (an individual contributor task), for example, and so they become promoted to head up the whole web division (a leadership task).
The problem is that, at the higher levels of an organization, you don’t succeed primarily because of your abilities as an individual contributor (that is, because of your abilities to do the work). Rather, you primary role is now to set direction, align your team, and give thought to the direction of the whole organization.
If you keep focusing on doing the work yourself, or acting like another member of the team whose contribution is simply another chunk of work that is the same in kind as what everyone else is doing, you will be neglecting the things that you are really in your role to do.
In fact—and this is the key—if you keep trying to do the sorts of things you did as an individual contributor, you simply won’t have time to lead at all.
There Are Good Things You Have to Stop Doing in Order to Lead Well
That’s the main take-away you need to get here. I am not saying that you need to start leading in addition to continuing to act as an individual contributor. Rather, my point is that you have to stop doing most of your former functional responsibilities in order to be able to lead.
If you keep trying to do your functional responsibilities, you simply won’t have time to do this. Your individual contribution tasks will interfere with your leadership tasks.
There is a range here, of course. It’s not that the leader has no responsibilities as an individual contributor. But his primary area of focus needs to be leadership tasks, not individual contributor tasks.
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Making Effective Decisions
It is surprising how often we go into important decisions haphazardly, without taking an intentional approach. Here are four steps to good decision making:
- 1. Understand the objectives
- 2. Consider the alternatives
- 3. Consider the risks
- 4. Make the decision
Make sure to consider what you really want—the ideal—before considering the constraints. The reason is that you will almost always have to compromise, but you will never know the right compromises to make if you don’t know the ideal you are shooting for.
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Leadership: Setting Down Responsibility for a Few Results and Picking Up Accountability for Many Results
Eblin talks about eight core things that you need to stop doing (and 8 things you need to start doing) in order to succeed at the executive level. His most helpful point is that executive leadership requires “setting down responsibility for few results and picking up accountability for many results.”
To be “responsible” for something is to be involved in the details. You are either doing it directly or closely involved in directing those who are. Obviously, this doesn’t scale—if you are closely involved with the details of things, you won’t have the time to deal with a lot of things.
To be “accountable,” on the other hand, is to be answerable for the results that other people (your team) achieves. Since you aren’t in the details doing things, this scales—you can be accountable for many things, which is exactly what any leadership role requires.
To Accomplish More, Do Less
A leader needs to accomplish more than he did as an individual contributor, not less. And that’s the precise reason he needs to stop acting like an individual contributor.
When you lead, your efforts are multiplied through the influence you have on the contributions of others. Thus, the leader needs to spend less time on individual projects and more time working across the scope of the organization or, if his or her role is informal, the movement.
This means, as Andy Stanley has said, that if you are a leader, you need to “spend the majority of your time at the thirty-thousand foot level while remaining accessible to team members who are closer to the action. Spend more time strategizing and less time problem solving.”
Now, how does GTD get in the way of this?
How Getting Things Done Can Inadvertently Prevent You from Leading
It’s simple: All the project lists and action lists involved in most productivity approaches (such as GTD) tend to cause your focus to gravitate to your own individual contribution.
When looking at your next actions, for example, it’s easy to fall into the notion that “I better do these things.” Since it’s often easier and quicker to do these things ourselves (at first), we end up easily settling into an individual contributor model when we should be thinking more broadly about our team and the culture of the entire organization.
And this is especially the case if you work for an organization that might be perennially short-staffed, like a non-profit or a ministry.
Which is exactly what happened to me. At one time I was leading three departments in our organization. I was managing the church and conference bookstores, launching our nationwide radio program, and leading our web department. This was a lot to have going on at once. I was frequently pulling all-nighters (which I actually enjoy—and I disagree with those who say that an all-nighter is a sign that you are inefficient and can’t get your work done—not true!), and one week I pulled three all-nighters in a row (my personal record).
The biggest reason for these long hours and all-nighters—aside from the fact that I really enjoyed what we were doing—is that I was doing a lot of work myself. I had a team of a few people in each area, but didn’t have nearly the number of people I needed. So I filled this gap by often doing a lot of the work right along with my team. I even put up a line of slat wall for shelving on the north wall of our bookstore all by myself (as anyone who has put up slat wall knows, this is a two or at least three person job—doing it by yourself is ridiculous!).
Now, the leaders should sometimes, frequently even, pitch in directly by working along side the people on his or her team. But this shouldn’t be the main thing the leader does. He needs to be setting direction, looking out ahead, and aligning people.
I don’t want to be too hard on myself here—in a very real sense, due to the small number of people I had to work with, I simply had no other choice. But the size of my team wasn’t the only reason for all these hours I was putting it. The other reason is that I simply thought that this is what it meant to do my work. I knew that leading my teams was important, but no one had ever told me that in order to do this well (or, alternatively, keep your sanity!), you have to stop doing so much of the work yourself. So I worked 80-90 hour weeks and pulled these frequent all-nighters.
Utilizing Getting Things Done only contributed to this. It’s certainly not the fault of GTD, but because the natural result of seeing 100 next actions and 50 projects is, at least to me, to think of them as actions that I must do, rather than things to delegate. My point is that if we aren’t aware of this danger, many of us (myself included) are more likely to fall into this trap.
So how do we avoid falling into this trap, and actually use Getting Things Done to enhance, rather than detract from, our leadership?
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To-Do Lists and Leadership
Here’s what Bubba Jennings, a pastor at Mars Hill Seattle, had to say when I asked him about how his to-do lists relate to his leadership:
I don’t want to be overwhelmed with a to do list that is 100 items long. Instead of doing a to do list that is 100 items long, I will find leaders who can run with things.
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Adapting Getting Things Done for Leadership
There are two main ways to adapt GTD for leadership.
The first way is to simply have the right mindset. We need to avoid overloading ourselves with next actions we need to personally do and projects we need to personally execute. This comes, in part, from making proper use of delegating.
Sometimes this means giving people one-off tasks that come your way. This is an important thing to do, but you need to be careful of allowing this to devolve into gopher delegation (as we talked about in chapter 18, “The Art of Making Time.”).
The most effective approach to delegation for a leader, though, is to delegate entire areas of responsibility rather than one-off tasks as they come. This scales and is much more effective because you don’t need to be in the details. It also cuts off many tasks from even coming to you in the first place and needing to be delegated specifically.
By delegation, you can decrease the amount of specific tasks that you have to deal with at all, thus keeping more time free for true leadership tasks.
2. Project and Organizational Dashboard
The second approach is the most exciting. This means taking the concept of the 20,000 foot level of roles and, instead of just creating a roles checklist for yourself, creating an org chart for your department (or, if you are in top management, your whole organization). Then, every week or so, review the org chart and reflect what actions you can proactively take to keep things going in the right direction, or to help make someone more effective, and so forth.
This is the type of thing you are probably doing already anyway just in your head, but creating a checklist or visual chart brings a level of proactive intentionality to it. It can be helpful to review the org chart visually in order to come up with new ideas and identify things you might not otherwise have thought of.
To keep this in motion, you can create a weekly repeating task, or integrate it into your weekly review.
But Shouldn’t We All Lead Where We are At?
Now, there are many different types of leadership roles, and, as Mark Sandborn has pointed out, you don’t even need a title to be a leader. So leadership doesn’t equate to having a role on the top leadership team or even necessarily having any formal authority at all. That is a form of leadership, and the main form we have been focusing on so far. But it is not the only kind of leadership. Leadership, at its essence, is influence.
And therefore you can lead wherever you are. But these principles are still important, even if you are not in a formal leadership role in your organization, because leading where you are involves more than just doing your work. You need to look outward, develop networks, motivate people, and rally them to a better future. These tasks are things you need to do beyond your individual work, if you are an individual contributor—which means you still need to be careful about the tendency to get pulled in to a narrow focus on your own work.
|[BEGIN TEXT BOX]If You Want to be Maximally Productive, LeadA friend of mine who is a pastor recently emailed me, asking for the top book on productivity that I would recommend for a busy pastor.|
I responded to him with a book on leadership, not productivity. Here’s part of the email which shows why:
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5 Tips for Leaders
1. Make the Good of Others your Primary Aim
This is the main principle of productivity, and it is the same with leadership. Leadership is not about you. It is about serving others, building them up, and making them more effective.
We should lead this way because it is right and it is the way the Scriptures teach us to lead (Matthew 20:25-28; 1 Peter 5:1-3; etc.). But it is also the case that this is actually the more enjoyable way to lead as well. It is far more fun to invent ways to help others thrive and grow than it is to conceive of plans for your own private advancement.
And, beyond that, you’ll find that it actually makes you more effective as a leader because it unlocks the essential ingredient for true leadership: trust. Mark Sanborn nails this:
When people know you are interested in their best interest, and in helping them meet their needs, they will trust you. It’s human nature. And that genuine interest in helping others and making a positive difference is the essence of leadership.
The proponents of servant leadership are not simply contemporary leadership thinkers. Speaking over 250 years ago, Jonathan Edwards wrote:
Especially will the spirit of Christian love dispose those that stand in a public capacity, such as that of ministers, and magistrates, and all public officers, to seek the public good. . . . It will make them watchful against public dangers, and forward to use their powers for the promotion of the public benefit; not being governed by selfish motives in their administration; not seeking only, or mainly, to enrich themselves, or become great, and to advance themselves on the spoils of others, as wicked rulers very often do, but striving to act for the true welfare of all to whom their authority extends.
And, on the other hand, Edwards also spoke of the sin of those who, “if clothed with authority, carry themselves very injuriously toward those over whom their authority extends, by behaving very assumingly and magisterially and tyrannically toward them.”
Those whom you lead are not there to serve you; you are there to serve them. This is how Jesus himself led (Matthew 20:28); how could you see your role as being any different?
2. Turn the Work Over to the Team
As we saw, you cannot give attention to the true tasks of leadership unless you let your team focus on the managing and doing of the work.
This is not to say that the task of the leader is to avoid all menial work. Jesus himself showed us that is not the case by washing his disciples feet on the way to the cross (John 13:12-17). But the primary task of the leader is to set direction, align, and motivate—not primarily create plans and do the specific work tasks.
We don’t succeed at the executive level because of additional functional strengths. You have to turn the work over to your team—even if, at first, they can’t do it as well as you.
2b. For Pastors: Don’t Turn Over Preaching and Teaching
It might be tempting for a pastor to think, “OK, if my primary task is leadership, then I need to hand off more preaching and teaching so I can focus on leading the staff.” This would be a mistake.
The focus of the pastoral role is to be prayer and the ministry of the word—not leading the pastoral staff. That does need to happen, but it is not the primary role of the pastor.
The primary role of the pastor is to shepherd (lead) the flock. And this is done primarily through—not apart from—preaching and teaching.
The right application of this for pastors, then, is not that they should reduce their preaching and teaching load so they can do more staff leadership and administrative work. Rather, it is that they should reduce their administrative work so they can devote even more time to preaching and teaching.
Some people think that pastors are an exception to the importance of leadership. They think that a focus on leadership leads to a pastor as the CEO model. This is incorrect. Leadership in the pastoral role is practiced primarily through the ministry of the word and prayer. And thus pastors are not an exception to the things I am saying on leadership here; rather, these things actually protect the true nature of the pastoral role.
One nuance here: In larger churches, there is often an executive pastor who leads the staff, and you have a bunch of other roles that other pastors fulfill as well (small group ministries, family discipleship ministries, etc.). I am not saying that’s bad. The role of the executive pastor, for example, is primarily to lead the staff. I am talking here about the primary preaching and teaching pastor—which includes the senior pastor. (And, even so, the executive pastor should place a heavy emphasis on preaching and teaching in his contexts as well.)
3. Take Time to Think
A leader needs to take time to step back, get up on the balcony, and reflect. All good leaders do this. They process what has happened, think of new and better ways to do things, make sure they keep their eye on the big picture, and just plain think.
There is a significant reflecting component to leadership. The best leaders tend to be the best thinkers.
You need to find your own way to do it, but you need to build this into your life as a discipline. For many leaders, virtually all down time automatically tends to become thinking time. They are always thinking, always musing, always having ideas and reflections and questions running through their heads.
Or you might combine thinking with exercising or, like Jonathan Edwards, go for long walks to spend time in prayer and thought. The key is that you create time to think and do it regularly.
Beyond the ordinary time that you take to think during the course of a week, I would also suggest taking a week out every quarter or six months to go somewhere secluded and read and reflect on major issues and across a broad range of topics.
Bill Gates exemplifies this in his famous “think weeks” where he takes “a seven-day stretch of seclusion he uses to ponder the future of technology and then propagate those thoughts across the Microsoft empire.” Now that his efforts are turned primarily toward his foundation, I doubt that his focus is still the future of technology. But what better way to contribute to the solutions for large global problems than to spend a week reading and thinking about new and better ways to address them?
And you can do the same for the problems—and, most of all, opportunities—in your organization.
One other word here: Don’t merely think. Draw conclusions. That’s the point of thinking. Those who ponder, ponder, and ponder some more, without ever coming to a position on things, will be ill equipped to bring much insight and help to others.
Leaders need not only time to think, they also need time to connect with people. This should be a top priority for you in your leadership.
You need to connect not only with the people in your organization or primary sphere of influence, but also with people all across your industry or movement or marketplace or area.
Leaders need to stay in close touch with the people they serve and develop networks of relationships with other leaders.
Conferences are a great time to combine taking time to think and connecting with others. And, by combing these two, they both become more effective because you are able to share your ideas and see how they are refined and built on by others.
And this, in fact, is the purpose of conferences: connect with others and share ideas.
Some people regard attending conferences as a bonus expense, as something to do if some extra money is in the budget, but not worth prioritizing otherwise. I couldn’t disagree more. The value that comes from making connections, having time to think, being exposed to great new ideas, and refining your ideas is invaluable. If you work for a non-profit or a church, you will find that conferences radically expand your ability to accomplish your mission. And if you work in business, there is a strong case to be made that attending (good) conferences is actually revenue generating.
5. Don’t ignore the condition of your soul
There are a lot of parallels between productivity and leadership. As we saw above, both should be focused on the good of others. Another parallel is that character is at the heart of both of them.
Andy Stanley gets this right when he points out that “without character you won’t be a leader worth following. Character provides the moral authority necessary to bring together the people and resources needed to further an enterprise….Character is the source of your moral authority.”
And this means you need to keep your walk with God vibrant and growing. Andy Stanley captures this well again: “To become a leader worth following, you must be intentional about developing the inner man. You must invest in the health of your soul. Nobody plans to fail, especially leaders. But to ignore the condition of your soul is the equivalent of planning to fail.”
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Core Point: If you confuse the role of the producer and leader, you will ruin your ability to lead. Effective leaders set down responsibility for few results in order to pick up accountability for many results.
You have to stop the corporate equivalent of cutting the grass yourself and instead hire a lawn service. Your work is to oversee the process, stay accountable to your customers, and begin planning your extension of the landscaping business.
Action: Reflect on the portion of what you do that makes the biggest difference, and start focusing 80% of your efforts there. These should be things that focus on the 20,000-30,000 foot level and higher, that are within your core strengths, and from which you see the biggest impact.
Taking it Deeper: Create a simple org chart for your organization or department, and reflect on three ways to help make a person or department or the whole organization more effective.
Hans Finzel, The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make, chapter 2, “Putting Paperwork Before Peoplework.”
John Kotter, “What Leaders Really Do,” Harvard Business Review.
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 In fact, I’m not sure I agree with the Peter Principle at all. It simply doesn’t make much sense to me. People can be promoted outside of their strengths. But to say they’ve been promoted “beyond their ability” implies that that the person has only a certain amount of ability that can only take them so far. In contrast, I believe that people can keep learning and growing and rise to the occasion if they truly desire to. The issue is that the higher role may not be a good fit for what they are most highly motivated and gifted to do. But the problem here is not that the role is higher and they can’t somehow handle the responsibility; the problem is one of fit. There may be other roles of even greater responsibility that are a good fit, and in which the person would excel.
 The thing about all-nighters, by the way, is that you need to also work the next full day, for otherwise you defeat the whole purpose. If you are going to stay up all night and then go to bed at 6 am, why didn’t you just go to bed at night and get up early?
 Interestingly, another factor here was the fact, because I was working for a ministry, I really believed in and loved what we were doing as an organization. I don’t think I would have done this if I was working at a for-profit. It would have been much more natural for me to say, “we have to hire more people, or we just can’t do this stuff.” This is one of the great things about working at a ministry—but also one of the dangers. The great thing is the work is so meaningful. I really loved what I was doing and didn’t begrudge these all-nighters. But precisely because I loved what I was doing, it was easy to overlook the fact that I was just plain doing too much.
 See his excellent book You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader: How Anyone, Anywhere, Can Make a Positive Difference.
 Mark Sanborn, You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader, p. 64. Keith Ferrazzi gets this as well: “Do you understand that it’s your team’s accomplishments, and what they do because of you, not for you, that will generate your mark as a leader?” (Never Eat Alone, p. 57). That’s a critical difference: what they do because of you, rather than simply for you. He also adds a bit later: “I realized that my long-term success depended on everyone around me. That I worked for them as much as they worked for me” (Never Eat Alone, p. 58).
 Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits: Christian Love as Manifested in the Heart and Life, 170-171.
 Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits, p. 169. Note that servant leadership is not a recent innovation in leadership theory. It is taught and modeled in the Bible, and writing more than 200 years ago one of the greatest theologians the church has ever produced affirmed it.
 I know some people say the concept of “senior pastor” is not in the Bible. And I do believe, as Alexander Strauch argues in Biblical Eldership, that all elders are equal in authority. But as Strauch also points out, one elder typically stands out as “first among equals,” and there may be different reporting relationships within the pastoral staff.
 See my post, “Is Attending Conferences an Unnecessary Expense?” //www.whatsbestnext.com/2010/03/is-attending-conferences-an-unnecessary-expense/
 Andy Stanley, The Next Generation Leader.
 Andy Stanley, The Next Generation Leader.
 The Next Level.