New Scarcities: leadership time and focus

Guided by local Lisbon artist, Xico Gaivota, leaders picking up micro plastics on an otherwise pristine beach.

Leader as time lord

The most effective leaders we encounter budget their leadership time and attention deliberately. They treat them similarly to the other scarce resources most beloved of economists: money, natural and human capital. These leaders appear to have time on their side in the same way that great tennis players look relaxed at the net or actors seem to wait centre stage, unhurried, for the words of their soliloquies.

How do they do it? They prioritise ruthlessly, they say ‘no’, they delegate wisely and still they can make time to be human, to learn, to reflect and to listen. They are Time Lords, designing, budgeting and allocating precious resources in order to lead more efficiently and effectively: they literally make time.

Leader as conductor

These leaders also understand that all time is not the same. They know when to schedule an important meeting to take advantage of maximum energies (certainly not after lunch on a Friday). They do not have back to back meetings: they leave ten minutes for reflection, to draft a note, to have a coffee, to collect thoughts. They also understand rhythm: projects need proper beginnings and endings, weeks need highs amidst lows, breaks as well as sprints, reflection and action.

A leader holds the baton and can influence the rhythm of days and weeks. ‘How we spend our days’, says the writer Annie Dillard, ‘Is how we spend our lives’.

Leader as activist

Leadership focus is another contested area, everyone wants a slice of it. The urgencies of the day-to-day can muffle the sound of an important voice at the edge, or the view of a hand in the crowd, not waving but drowning. Leaders can quite quickly move from being purposeful activists to quotidian re-activists if they don’t treat their focus and attention as another scarce resource. The comforting demands of mastery (often confused with leadership) and management can bring about the wilful blindness – and deafness – seen here in our colleague

Margaret Heffernan's Ted Talk . Activist leaders need to be able both to zoom in close and zoom out with a wide lens as detailed in this Deloitte Study. This is ‘both/and’ leadership, not the ‘either or’ kind.

In practice:

Our most recent programme designed for the Ariane de Rothschild Legacy Fellows was held in Lisbon, Portugal.

Leadership time

Given their predilections, leaders generally love to take on the new. They resist stopping things or deliberately jettisoning the old and obsolete. Yet without this clearing-out process they can get stuck with a crippling idea of time as an infinite resource, endlessly adding on layer after layer of commitment. We meet many exhausted leaders. The simple act of giving leaders blank timetables from the past week and an invitation for them to reflect on how productively they allocate their time can bring about a valuable shift.

Leadership attention

We worked with an inspiring local artist Xico Gaivota in Portugal who creates art work from plastic picked up from the shore. He took a group of leaders to a seemingly pristine beach in Portugal, gave out huge bags and asked them to pick up the litter. Initially bewildered, they soon saw, by looking close, that the beach was covered in micro-plastics. Before long the bags were full. This short exercise gave rise to horizon-scanning conversations about how everyone was implicated in this scene and the leadership questions it raised.