In my coaching work I sometimes encounter leaders who are what I term, “The Task Warrior Leader”. They complain they do not have enough time to do what they are paid for as leaders; engage and motivate their teams, create a vision, strategize and plan. They are too bogged down in operational detail. Task Warriors are particularly prevalent among those who are taking up their first senior leadership position. But what causes them to become bogged down in operational detail, doing tasks instead of paying attention to their assigned role as a leader?
In my twelve years of coaching senior leaders I have uncovered a number of reasons for the Task Warrior’s unwillingness to let go of mundane tasks and detail. The justification for the behaviour usually comes in the following forms:
a) I can do it quicker and better myself.
b) I don’t want to overwhelm my staff.
c) I can show the bosses I can get things done and be recognized for my achievement.
d) My staff are not competent to do the task as well as I can.
On probing the reality behind these justifications, the meaning behind the behaviour becomes apparent:
Justification: I can do it quicker and better myself.
Meaning: I don’t trust my staff to do the job as well/as fast as I can. I doubt their competence.
Justification: I don’t want to overwhelm my staff.
Meaning: I don’t want them to feel pressured such that they start complaining or quit so I have the headache of recruiting.
Justification: I can show the bosses I can get things done and be recognized for my achievement.
Meaning: I’m not so confident about my leadership competence, so I’ll stay in my comfort zone doing tasks I know I can do well.
Justification: My staff are not competent to do the task as well as I can.
Meaning: As a leader I have not spent enough time developing my staff to the point where they can be trusted with more challenging work.
At the heart of this pattern of behaviour is the fact that the leader, while busy doing their team member’s work, has an excuse to avoid the hard stuff outside their comfort zone; leading people. The hard stuff includes, strategizing, creating a vision, devising and taking responsibility for a business plan that may or may not fly. Being constantly busy with operational tasks also avoids the human challenges of leadership; inspiring, motivating, developing team members and dealing with poor performers.
There is sometimes a feeling of guilt if the Task Warrior spends time actually doing nothing but thinking, something a senior leader is paid to do. I worry if I do not sometimes see a senior leader sitting in his or her office just staring at a blank whiteboard. On the other hand, the Task Warrior Leader worries that if they are not seen to be constantly “busy”, their staff will not respect them and their bosses, or Board, will think they are lazy.
During a coaching session it takes some deep thought by the Task Warrior Leader to realize the negative consequences of their behaviour.
First, team members feel they are not trusted to do the tasks they are paid to do, which has a negative impact on morale. Second, not being trusted also means that team members do not have the opportunity to run with important projects and shift outside their comfort zone. This is a serious problem in staff development, in that growth and development only really happens when an employee is pushed outside their individual comfort zone. Third, the Task Warrior is forgetting they are no longer being measured on their technical ability or operational efficiency but their ability to lead, motivate and inspire a team of people reporting to them.
Once the leader realizes and accepts they are a diagnosed Task Warrior, they start to think about behavioural changes. Such changes will include delegating more tasks, trusting their staff to complete more complex tasks and tolerating the occasional mistake. They also have to adjust to their direct reports achieving results using a different approach to their own. As well as delegating tasks it may also mean attending less meetings and delegating them to subordinates. Task Warriors have a tendency to attend many meetings, even when their presence is not essential to outcomes. It is another tactic to appear busy and avoid the heavy responsibility of true leadership.
THE “AHA” MOMENT
Having launched into a new process of ‘letting go’ of operational tasks the leader then needs to think about new activities to fill the space they have created. The list my clients come up with looks similar to this:
• I will spend more time to get to know my direct reports as individuals, their backgrounds, hopes, fears, aspirations and developmental needs. Armed with that knowledge I am in a better position to motivate them and give them work that will inspire them.
• I will allocate specific thinking time in my calendar to think about upcoming threats, weaknesses, and opportunities and the strategies needed to meet them, without feeling guilty about spending working time staring at a blank whiteboard.
• I will spend time regularly updating my team and the organization on my vision and strategy, so that everyone has clarity on where we are going and why.
• I will involve my team members in making major decisions, rather than feeling I have to have all the answers myself, such that the entire team are aligned behind the solution and can take ownership of implementation.
• Every time a task lands on my desk, I will ask myself the question, “Am I the only person in the organization who can do this task?”. If the answer is “no”, I will delegate.
Letting go is not an easy transition for the Task Warrior Leader. It means recognizing that strengths they have relied on for years to get them to a senior role are no longer sufficient, or may even be working against them now. One of my favourite books on leadership behaviour makes this point very well. “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” by Marshall Goldsmith is full of case studies where successful individuals have over-relied on redundant strengths and in the process have sabotaged their ongoing success.
Acknowledging and accepting the Task Warrior habit can be a pivotal point in the career of a senior leader. For those who stay in denial however, a permanent career plateau is the most likely outcome.