Brandt On Leadership -- Falling Behind By Keeping Up

Sometimes our jobs prevent real work.

I bet this never happens to you: I was supposed to write a column on leadership last Monday -- the most important thing I'd do all week -- but I had a few other job-related tasks to finish first. After all, if the column was my critical task, shouldn't I clear my mind of all extraneous matters, so that I could devote my full attention? Of course I should. Except for . . . E-mail: I happened to check my electronic in-box before I started writing, only to find that it had somehow swollen to 536 unanswered messages. With nearly a hundred new messages arriving each day, I realized it wouldn't be long before I was hopelessly swamped. Leaders -- and columnists -- can't afford to be seen as out of touch or unresponsive. Plus, it was a Monday, I was tired and distracted, and when you don't feel like working but you still want to look like you're working, there's nothing like answering a bunch of meaningless e-mails. And so I read, answered and/or filed not the 25 messages that actually mattered, but the 511 that I could answer without doing real work. I felt great, of course, but my column still wasn't written. I still had Tuesday, except for . . . The in-basket: In my e-mail frenzy, I had completely neglected my in-basket. It being a Tuesday, I now had a pile of not just memos and invoices but also magazines, tabloids and newsletters. Since you can't be a leader or write a column without being well informed, I dove right into the 43 publications absolutely vital to my knowledge of current trends. In fact, I ended up spending the entire day catching up on industry and business trends. My column wasn't any closer to being finished, but I was undeniably smarter than ever. Which meant I had Wednesday, except for . . . The phone: Two days of clean-up and study had left me with a sheaf of phone messages taller than a club sandwich. So I spent Wednesday talking to employees, customers, vendors, investors and just about anyone else who wanted to sell, cajole, wheedle, demand or otherwise convince me of something. I had hoped that returning these calls would take just an hour or two, but like the hapless sorcerer's apprentice, I found that each call seemed to breed three more. By the end of the day I had a new sheaf of messages taller than my triple latte and not a word on the page. Thursday would have to be better, except for . . . Meetings: The next day I strode purposefully toward my office, determined to slam my door and get the damn column written. I was making great progress, moving down the hall at tremendous speed with a grim look when my assistant stopped me cold. All the meetings I'd avoided earlier in the week -- with marketing, sales, HR, finance, operations -- couldn't wait any longer, at least not if I wanted any semblance of a quarterly update or a revised business plan for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, none of these VPs and department heads added so much as a syllable to my column. Friday would be my last chance, except for . . . Reports and memos: I finally locked myself in my office to write, and boy, did I: Memos and reports and letters and analyses and plans and even a speech for a retirement dinner. None of these projects was as important as my column, but all had deadlines that were more pressing. The weekend it was, then, except for . . . Filing, expense reports and exhaustion: On Saturday I stared at a blank document on my computer and wondered how I could concentrate when I was surrounded by so many unfiled reports and accounting forms. So I filed them. And was too tired the rest of the day or Sunday for anything else. So now it's Monday again, and the most important thing on my list from last week still isn't done. Meanwhile, the e-mails, magazines, voice mails, meetings, reports and memos are piling up. I may have to quit my job to get any work done. But then, I bet this never happens to you. John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is president and publisher of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

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