In other words, the least important work is getting the best of your attention. The items on your to-do list are important -- they wouldn't be there if they weren't. However, the truly visionary work that leaders must do is pushed aside. Like Stephen Covey's "urgent versus important" time management matrix, described in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, leaders are losing the forest for the trees.
I coach founders and CEOs to focus on strategic leadership. They know it's critical, but they also have logical reasons for why it's not getting done. I uncover the real reason. Without intervention, leaders will avoid strategic activities and focus on their to-do list.
This avoidance usually comes down to fear. Focusing on day-to-day work is easier and more predictable. Strategic work is harder, carrying more risk. That fear is amplified as companies grow and the risk of big decisions increases.
Here are four traits to overcome your fear and expand your capacity to be strategic:
1. Let go of the day-to-day.
The ability to step back from immediate work is an underdeveloped skill. There's fear that no one can do it as well or as fast as you can. This trap keeps leaders focused on details and status updates. I talked with a potential client who was wrapped up in invoicing, yet he complained he didn't have time to sell. It was clear that he prioritized small tasks and failed to commit to the work that would grow the company.
Strategic leaders know how to let go of most day-to-day tasks so they can lead the company by doing visionary work.
2. Connect the dots.
The ability to find the relationship between various data points and strategies is essential to strategic leadership. Organizational complexity increases with departments in marketing, sales, technology, operations and finance. Strategic leaders are able to go beyond the internal to include external partners, clients and other stakeholders.
A leader's job is to step back to see how various people and projects are connected to each other. They must create and simplify contextual models so others can see how the dots are connected as well.
3. Prioritize time to think.
Leaders often over-index on execution. Strategic leaders know that if they don't protect their calendars, someone will do it for them. One critical discipline for those who want to be more strategic is to prioritize time for thinking.
One of my clients, Favio Lopez, struggled making time to think -- his days were filled with back-to-back meetings, travel and email. Lopez is the COO of Trideum Corporation, which delivers engineering services to the federal government and ranked No. 4404 on the 2019 Inc. 5000 list. Lopez felt the pressure of leading more than 260 people and creating consistent growth, but eventually found that having time to think helps him to become a better leader. You may see time to think as a luxury in a fast-paced world, but like Lopez found, it's a requirement.
Look back at your schedule, and consider your hours of highest creativity and thinking. I refer to these as the "hours of genius." Protect that time like it's a meeting with your best client. Also, keep in mind that some of your best ideas will come when you're not actively engaged in solving problems, such as in the shower or during a walk. Make space for these activities, too.
4. Be proactive as a default.
Fast-paced work environments are the norm. Everyone must react to the challenges that arise. Over time, you end up putting out "fires" instead of building space to be proactive.
This is one area where I struggled myself; I felt more like a firefighter than a CEO. My day was consumed by reacting to work that was never supposed to be part of my day. To grow the company, I needed to be proactive. This meant I would work on projects that allowed the company to get ahead of the current cycle of work and not become a victim to immediate problems.
Change your mindset -- make a defined percentage of your day proactive. For me, that number is 80 percent. Examine last week's calendar to determine your percentage of reactive versus proactive time. Create systems that allow you to streamline the work operations you're touching. You might automate some things. You might delegate others. The key is to make proactivity your default.
Average leaders focus on day-to-day work and let their fears control them. Visionary leaders think ahead and realize where their time is best spent.