Leadership is supposed to transform companies in ways so that they are better able to meet future challenges. Too often, however, leaders fail in making the right decisions when it matters, as they lack a pro-active attitude. In this article, David De Cremer discusses how and why procrastination as an individual tendency underlies the lack of pro-active leadership.
When Charlotte Beers took over as CEO of the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather Worldwide (OMW) in 1992, the company was in severe decline. In an industry that moved to the global level in the eighties OMW was still working too locally and no cohesion existed in terms of the vision and mission of the company. In addition, customers perceived the company as negative and not responding to their needs. Due to a combination of passion, persistence and a consistent strategy to develop and implement a vision she was, however, able to transform the company in ways that made them earn the big advertising accounts again and adopt a global perspective on business at the same time. Charlotte Beers turned out to be the kind of CEO who was able to diagnose problems by using clear goals and visions, but, even more importantly, by recognising the actions needed in the future to remain a front-runner in the industry.
As this example makes clear, leadership deals with change. It is about being able to transform a given situation into one that deals and responds in a better way with challenges than before. What is also clear is that leaders will bring changes if they show little hesitation in their actions and adopt a proactive attitude. A common complaint, however, about leaders nowadays is that decisions are being delayed and that as a result they are often not ready to meet the challenges at hand. More often than not important decisions that have to be made are delayed or pushed aside by decisions that are of lesser importance and urgency. We all have experienced moments where our annual appraisal review was postponed (almost to infinity), strategic plans were side-lined and visions that were launched with such enthusiasm at the beginning of the year died quietly but not always peacefully. Or, take for example the lack of leadership to deal with the Euro Crisis. With each European summit, frustration with the European leadership increased. Each summit produced another series of half-baked proposals that were little more than stop-gap measures, postponing a decision on the real problem to the next summit (or the one after that). The end result of a lack of proactive leadership is that innovation hardly takes place, clear visions are difficult to find, and inertia is becoming part of the DNA of too many companies.
In my recent book The Proactive Leader: How To Overcome Procrastination And Be A Bold Decision Maker (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), I examine more closely the problem of why proactive leadership is put on hold by focusing on the process of procrastination. Procrastination stands for leader’s tendency to delay making important decisions while executing the less important ones. Procrastination is irrational in nature as it does not help in facilitating leadership to take place. In fact, leaders who delay decisions or put off actions that need to be taken are generally less successful. The large majority of procrastinators perform under the average level for what can usually be regarded as a successful career. In other words, leaders who procrastinate will in general perform less well than leaders who can resist or control this temptation. A problem, however, is that many business leaders do not perceive themselves as suffering from a lack of proactive attitude, and, hence, having a tendency to hesitate and procrastinate. Like most people, our leaders are biased in the ways that they evaluate themselves, and are more favourable on desirable traits and attributes like being proactive. My own research among Chinese executives, for example, revealed that team leaders evaluated themselves as more proactive than both their subordinates and supervisors perceived them to really be.
It is important to realise, however, that because of this self-serving strategy leaders often remain blind to the lack of their pro-active attitude and when they do become aware of it it is often too late. Indeed, from an organisational point of view, it is necessary to realise that procrastinating leaders will negatively influence all levels of the organisation and install status-quo thinking among everyone involved. As a result, the competitive edge of the organisation will be significantly reduced. Put simply, under such circumstances others and their welfare will suffer from the inefficient decision-making habits of such leaders. In terms of financial welfare, for instance, by postponing decisions financial benefits and opportunities are lost and one ends up with lower value than one could have achieved. A reactive mindset may lead people to hold on to stocks, accounts and means of cash in times that they rationally speaking should invest and make use of it. Therefore, it is crucial for companies and future leaders to focus on ways to avoid these bad habits. Companies that are led by leaders challenging the status quo and continuously checking whether improvements are possible spearhead the industry. For instance, Jeffrey Preston “Jeff” Bezos in his job as founder and CEO of Amazon show leadership focusing primarily on doing better and preferably in different ways than before. It is exactly this mindset of being willing to experiment with a vision in mind that puts them ahead of the competition.
What are the causes underlying procrastination?
Forces Within the Leader
Leaders who more often than not fall prey to procrastination tendencies are poor in regulating their goals. These leaders do not have the perseverance to stay loyal to the values and goals they wish to pursue. Somewhere along the way in setting out the vision they get lost in less important and sometimes even irrelevant decisions. Or, they park the decisions that need to be taken because their interest has suddenly moved into another direction. Being less skilled in regulating your goals goes hand in hand with being impulsive. Impulsiveness in a way hinders coming up with a list of priorities and sticking to it at the same time.
What is interesting is that impulsive leaders also have a hard time recognising and controlling their emotional states. People who fear finishing tasks or taking important decisions actually experience anticipated feelings of uncertainty and/or regret, which means that they develop an avoidance strategy toward the execution of their tasks rather than an achievement strategy to finish things. Once this cycle has set off, leaders need to show strong skills in overcoming their emotions and getting a clear picture of what needs to be done. If they do not achieve this state then procrastination will escalate and leadership effectiveness will suffer.
Forces from Outside the Leader
Of course, leadership does not take place in a social vacuum. Many – if not most – of our decisions are influenced by what other people think, the strategies our competitors develop, and our own need to feel included. Our environment exerts such social pressures that decision-making is not such a straightforward issue. This observation actually underlines even more the importance for our leaders to be clear about what they pursue and how they personally feel about the decision they have to take. If leaders are not confident in their own regulation abilities then the slightest influence from the environment will overthrow their persistence to stick to their vision.
The social forces that may promote procrastination tendencies and reduce proactive actions all cluster around those that create ambiguities and uncertainties. For instance, organisational settings characterised by distrust and a lack of transparency evoke feelings of fear and uncertainty. Under such circumstances, it will be difficult to predict whether one’s decisions will be endorsed by the others and whether others are committed to execute your ideas and visions. Leaders who do not feel confident and experience feelings of fear to execute their own list of priorities will quickly be swept off their feet in such conditions.
What To Do About It?
In order to develop a proactive leadership style that is not hindered by the process of procrastination it is imperative that leaders develop strategies to encounter both forces from within and outside themselves, to practice these strategies and finally act upon them. It is this kind of execution that will make you authentic in the things you do. Being recognised as an authentic decision maker in turn will create conditions facilitating proactivity.
Know what you want and be aware of the consequences of your decisions
The primary thing to do is to be clear about your own list of priorities and why you want to pursue them. When people are asked what they like to achieve with their actions many are not able to be very concrete about it. In fact, most leaders are pretty abstract in explaining the ‘why’ of their actions whereas to know why you are doing what you are doing you should be able to be concrete about it.
Although the idea of having priorities and being clear about it sounds simple, the reality is that too many leaders focus on the details at the expense of a broader goal. In other words, too many leaders lack a vision because they focus too much on the details themselves and not on the why of those details. This kind of leadership is perceived as not being goal-oriented, lacking the ability to look into the future to identify viable opportunities. The future is always difficult to predict and knowing which direction one wants to take under such circumstances then requires the ability to deal with uncertainty. Most people, however, postpone decisions or even refrain from taking them because they believe that it will somehow retain them a higher degree of influence over the situation: this is the illusion of control. In reality, however, the postponing of decisions is simply a way of avoiding the real issues, which creates even greater uncertainty.
As a result, many leaders nowadays do not think through the consequences and the possible effects their decision may reveal in the bigger picture. Lack of this knowledge prevents them from being proactive and actually induces a strong sense of hesitation every time an important decision has to be made. Sheryl Sandberg in her role as chief operating officer of Facebook represents a kind of leader who is able to overcome uncertainties and turn it into a goal-oriented leadership style – which earned her a mentioning in 2012 as one of the 100 most influential people by Time. Her leadership style is characterised by a high level of energy and passion. She loves what she does and she knows how to communicate it by outlining the results that her actions will deliver. Due to her relentless optimism and looking forward attitude people recognise that she is able to see opportunities in every challenge, so that she inspires those who do business with her.
Work on your emotional, physical and relational life
Because it is important that leaders are able to act on their goals and at the same time manage their emotions, it is necessary that you avoid physical and mental exhaustion. Research shows a clear connection between procrastination and increased levels of stress which have a damaging effect on your immune system. And if your immune system is under pressure, this can lead to sleepless nights, bad eating habits and lower levels of bodily resistance and recovery. Clearly, the more you delay decisions the more negative consequences will emerge for your psychological and physical health. And it is exactly these resources you need to make optimal and confident decisions. If you do not feel energetic but instead restless and quickly tired, there will be less determination and passion to stick to your priorities and less energy to pave the way for your vision to happen. Therefore, try to identify for yourself the times and places when you feel most energetic.
In a related way, creating trustworthy and sustainable relationships with others can also help you to gain energy. As we are all social beings, positive relationships calm us down and provide energy to face the day and its challenges. In contrast, negative relationships only take energy and may even be difficult to escape from – a sense of learned helplessness may emerge. It is therefore important that when decisions turn out to be difficult you have a supportive working climate in place.
To conclude, leaders need to make decisions that shape the future of the company in better ways than before. In this process it is important that they develop confident and proactive strategies that enable them to make the right decisions. Subsequently, procrastination will be less likely to undermine the development of the company towards a sustainable and competitive future.
About the Author
David De Cremer is a professor of Organisational Behavior at China Europe International Business School and a visiting professor at London Business School. In 2009-2010 he was elected the most influential economist in the Netherlands. His consultancy and research interests are leadership, trust as a business asset and organisational justice and ethics practices.