During the past few years, many companies have made it clear to their people that they must follow the adage, “Do more with less.” Layoffs and firings have reduced many departments to skeletal staffs where fewer people are expected to accomplish the same amount of work that larger teams accomplished in the past. This may be reasonable in the public works sector where we often see road crews of five guys standing around with shovels while one guy digs. Asking two guys to dig doesn’t seem like such a stretch. But in companies where knowledge work is at the heart of the products and services provided, asking people to do more work with fewer people may lead to a mighty bumpy road.

Taking on more responsibility, more projects and more work is a valiant notion, akin to the good guy in a movie battling multiple bad guys at once. Think Bruce Lee, Batman or any of the Quentin Tarantino protagonists (no, not the ones wearing executioner masks). But in a world where @#$! travels down hill, a leader’s job isn’t simply to pass everything that comes from upper management down to her people. The leader’s job isn’t just to add stuff to people’s plates. The leader’s job is to take things OFF of their plates.

One of the greatest causes of frustration I see in the Fortune 500 companies I work with is people being spread too thin. Flavor-of-the-month initiatives are conceived of by upper management and then handed down without consideration for people’s time. A leader steps in and pushes back in the right way, at the right time, to ensure that her people are not drowning in activities. If treading water is the most apt analogy for how your people feel, you’re failing as a leader.

A leader has to have the discipline to make trade-offs, not only for themselves, but for their people as well. A leader ensures that their team focuses only on those few things that truly deliver value to their internal or external customers. Then they creatively find ways to eliminate or delegate the rest. There are a number of practical tools to help leaders make trade-offs, prioritize and focus. But most folks will counter that they’re too busy to find them or use them. If you’re one of those “too-busy people,” you’re killing your team by not acting on their behalf.

Great strategy is as much about what you choose not to do, as it is about what you choose to do. Whether you’re a new district manager or the CEO, lead with the discipline to say no, to focus resources and to give people the greatest gift of all: time.

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