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Sometimes Leading Means Taking a Step Back

CHICAGO ( MainStreet) -- Ah, August. The month when Europeans head off to the beach for their usual three weeks of vacation. The month when restaurant owners in Italy and shopkeepers in France close up so they and their employees can get some much-needed R&R. The month when Americans ... pretty much keep to their same punishing work schedule.

For business owners, the thought of taking almost a month off falls into the realm of fantasy. Sure, it sounds great, but there's no way their company could survive if they weren't around to keep tabs on everything.

Or would it? One business school professor says U.S. business could function just fine if leaders were more hands-off. That their companies might even function better -- gasp! -- if they were less involved in the day-to-day running of their company.

"Saying you can work less and achieve more sounds like I'm selling snake oil," laughs Keith Murnighan, the Harold H. Hines Jr. Distinguished Professor of Risk Management at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. But in his new book, Do Nothing! How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader (Portfolio Hardcover), he points out the many ways managers make their work lives more difficult by getting involved in routine matters they should have long since delegated.

The lure of micromanaging is especially strong for entrepreneurs, whose business is literally an extension of themselves. Once a company starts growing and new employees come onboard, it can be difficult for the person in charge to accept that he or she is no longer responsible for everything.

"When you start your own company, 24 hours is not enough time for all the things you need to get done," Murnighan says. And it's easy for that "it's-all-on-me" mindset to remain even after a company is successful. "You've been rewarded for all those things you used to do," he says. "Now you have to stop doing them."

And this is where many small-business owners have trouble making the leap. With the very best of intentions, they hover over their employees, taking them through their tasks, giving what they think is helpful guidance. But by not allowing those workers to make their own decisions, these "overmanagers" stifle creativity and ambition.

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