My corporate career had two major acts, and they were both remarkably similar.

I started as a technical writer at one company and eventually built up a graphics department to about eight people and a couple of supervisors. I jumped out of management for my second job, taking another technical writer job and then built up a team from about four people to over 50 in the span of five years.

Both "careers" involved making many hire and fire decisions, managing a multi-million-dollar budget, selling our services to other departments, and one of my favorite activities: Approving the new computers and gadgets for the team. (Maybe it was providential that this was something I used to get excited about considering how many gadgets I've reviewed in my writing career.)

I've written many times about my leadership experiences, but next year is a pivotal point for me. It means I'll finally hit the milestone of writing full-time for 15 years. You can send the fruit baskets to the Inc.com offices in my name.

I know my exact anniversary date, because I left the corporate world on September 18, 2001--a week after 9/11. There's still more to say about how this major shift in my career occurred and how I've changed since then, but I'll spare you the gory details. Suffice it to say, for the first half of my working career I aspired to be a leader. For the second half, I've aspired to influence leaders. The two bookend nicely in terms of "doing" and learning and analyzing, a ying-and-yang if you're into that.

Over the years, there's one key lesson I've learned again and again in meeting with other leaders and watching what they do and whether they are effective. There's one common denominator for all leaders that can make or break them in the role. Say what you want about delegating your weakest skills, or managing by building relationships, or being a leader who creates a fun atmosphere for employees. They pale in comparison to this. There is one important word that makes you a great leader, and it's something that became obvious to me over the years.

The word is: T-I-M-E 

Let me explain why. When I've seen leaders who fail in business, it's usually because they are attempting to do too much. They run the show. They are the show. They are constantly running around doing everything, but they don't actually take the time to lead. They are busy casting a vision, or meeting with investors, or running off to a tech conference, or approving budgets. Employees want to get face time with you and pick your brain, but too many leaders are too busy doing other things. It's one of the reasons delegating tasks is so important: It frees you up to actually lead people. In a few cases I've seen recently, they are just too comfortable to lead. They take it for granted that employees will follow someone who is a leader in name only.

Leadership is a concerted effort, and you're the conductor of that concert. It takes time. If you are distracted by other activities, like meeting with a new customer across town or tweaking a spreadsheet constantly, you just can't give the role enough hours in the day and people will tend to view you as distracted, overworked, and maybe a bit too superior to hang out with the lower life-forms.

When I failed as a leader, it's because I was not taking the time to get to know my employees, to hang out with them and shoot the breeze, to arrange one-on-one discussions, to show up at status meetings, to communicate with them about the company goals (and their personal agendas). I didn't carve out the time required to lead so things eventually started to shake and crack in the foundation. I found out the hard way that people don't follow you just because you have a title.

Are there some changes you need to make right now to become a more effective leader? The first place to look is your own schedule. Are you dedicating enough time to your staff? Do they see you enough? Do you see them? All of the best practices of leadership--mentoring, listening, casting a vision, communicating, showing you are involved--take time. They are visceral, in-person, physically-bound activities, not just something you do by email. Maybe it's time to cancel a few of your conferences and luncheons and just do what you are paid to do: Lead people.

When a team starts to unravel and everyone is annoyed and upset, it's always because the leader is not taking the time to lead. Employees think you don't have a good sense of the problems in the organization because they don't see the staff often enough and they don't feel you are communicating.

It takes time. Are you using it wisely?