Who’s Using the Tennis Court?

How do you correct inefficient or controlling leadership behaviors? Self-awareness is the key.

Just last week a next-generation leader asked, “Any tips on how to get our company’s president to stay out of the weeds?” We talked about the specific behaviors he was referring to, and it reminded me of stories from Jimmy Carter’s presidency. President Carter was (and is) a smart man of character but widely regarded as one of the most ineffective presidents of the modern era. Just one clue to his unproductive time in office was his inability to stay out of the weeds. He would stay up most of the night prepping for briefings rather than trust his experts. He would pore over budget tables to check the math. For the first six months in office, he personally reviewed all requests to use the White House tennis court!

While many laugh and shake their heads at such micro-management, the truth is a lot of senior leaders spend a lot of their time on things that are below their pay grade. This is particularly true for entrepreneurial founders. There was likely a time when that lone individual literally did everything. Get work? Check. Do the work? Check. Pay the bills? Check. Occasionally fight for the literal survival of the company? Check.

In those early days, most had a mental list of higher responsibilities as soon as they were able to grow. “One of these days…” “As soon as I can hire a …” Yet many leaders I’ve met never fully realize their maximum contribution to their company because they continue to review requests for the tennis court. Why? Here are just a few reasons.

Old Habits—I’ve seen a lot of leaders who could laugh at themselves when confronted with holding on to relatively insignificant tasks. Sometimes it’s just what we’ve always done or we just like doing it. And as soon as we see it’s not worthy of our time and energy, we let it go.

Personality Preferences—Specialists are wired toward being deep subject matter experts in a narrow field. Generalists prefer to know a little about a lot of things. Specialists have to work significantly harder to build a team of experts around them

Addiction of Recognition—It feels good to be the one with all the answers. That’s why it is so easy for a leader to unintentionally train his or her team to come to them with each and every problem. Additionally, when we criticize or reprimand a person for a well-intentioned decision, we’ve effectively inoculated them from taking initiative in the future.

Worldviews Around Trust—Our early-in-life experiences predispose us toward trusting others or developing an “If you want it done right, do it yourself” attitude. Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t make it true! If you want it done right, hire or train someone to do it better than you.

In correcting almost all leadership behaviors, it begins with self-awareness. If a leader hears complaints about being in the weeds, micromanaging, or being high-control, it’s worth spending some time trying to get to the root of the issue. Building a truly great organization depends on building a high-capacity team who are equipped and empowered to make good decisions in the best interests of the company. Not all their decisions will be right. Neither are yours.

Maybe the right place to begin is with an honest assessment of how you currently spend your time. In the next issue, we’ll look at executive-level responsibilities that lead to significant progress toward a goal. But for now, creating a “Stop Doing” list could just be the first step in reinventing yourself.

Ron Magnus
Ron Magnus

Ron Magnus, managing director of FMI’s Leadership and Organizational Development Practice, with Tim Tokarczyk, partner.