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.

Just to be clear, Murnighan is not suggesting that leaders should disappear into their offices. The "Do Nothing" in his book title refers to the everyday running of the business: the accounting, email blasts, routine vendor calls or other back-office operations. If you have hired people to do those jobs, they should have a chance to prove themselves without interference.

The key to being a "do nothing" leader is to do everything when it comes to hiring. If you conduct in-depth interviews and reference checks before bringing in a worker, you can be confident you're bringing in someone who will be a good fit. "Why not trust the people you hire?" Murnighan asks. "Most leaders don't as much as they could. Give them a challenge that's a little more than they anticipate and they'll step up to meet it."

For people with little or no management experience, becoming the head of a company can be overwhelming. What Murnighan hopes his book accomplishes is to show that "leading" does not mean literally showing people how to do their jobs. It means leading a team: focusing on big-picture strategy and morale, rather than day-to-day, routine matters.

"If you are an entrepreneur with 100 employees and a positive cash flow, what is your most important resource? It's the people you've hired," Murnighan says. "You have to connect to them personally. Employees don't care about what you know if you don't show any interest in them."

And so another essential element of "do nothing" leadership is to make time for walking around and talking. Such socializing may indeed look like nothing -- nothing work-related, anyway -- but it is essential to building a strong, motivated team. Asking a customer-service rep what he or she needs to make their job easier, rather than lecturing them on how you used to handle difficult calls, gives them tools to be successful in their own way.

If you've dreamed of achieving a better work-life balance, Murnighan's book has plenty of examples of how to make that happen. But ultimately, it means acknowledging that you are not as indispensible as you think. And that can be a hard lesson for ambitious entrepreneurs to accept.

When it comes to charting the direction of a company, Murnighan proposes what he calls the leadership law: "Think of the reaction you want, then perform the actions that will get you that reaction." If you really, truly, want to spend less time at work, you can. But you have to be willing to hand over responsibility to others and trust them to do those tasks as well as you would.

If you can do that, you might just earn yourself a European-style vacation -- and still have a successful business to come back to afterward.

Don't make work harder than it needs to be.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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