This is ONE thing I wished I had learned early on in leadership. Well, it’s never too late to learn. In the last few years, I’ve really enjoyed making this part of my decision-making process. In this post, we’ll look at the impact of taking on too much and what might motivate us to do so. And I’ll share some thoughts on how to coach around this. It’s a bit of a longer post; maybe schedule ten minutes and get a drink to benefit more. Feel free to comment what you’ve learned that might benefit others! And if you found it helpful, feel free to share it with others, thank you!

As a younger leader, it felt good to be entrusted with more responsibility and authority. I knew it required more commitment and that I was expected to give more time, energy, attend more meetings and so on. Many years later, my sphere of influence had broadened more, and I ended up carrying more than one hat or role. It stretched and challenged me, and I grew and developed more of my potential. Of course, that meant more meetings, more time spent preparing, more travel… Eventually, I began to notice that I was becoming less effective in following through on some commitments, forgetting things, feeling more stressed and so on. And it was not just a matter of delegating well or lacking organizing skills. I was simply carrying more than I should.

I saw the same with friends and colleagues. We take on more, excited about the ‘more’, but don’t really ponder the repercussions until, for some of us, it becomes too much. Or others are negatively impacted by our over-commitment. Here are some symptoms I’ve seen in my life. What would you add to this list?

  • I’m not well prepared for all my meetings.
  • I loose track of tasks I committed and miss to follow through.
  • My family sees less of me.
  • I lack the energy to engage and be present when my family sees me, … (well, I can be absent minded anyhow, but that’s another issue).
  • I’m not fully present in important meetings I lead or need to attend (let’s not talk about ‘boring’ meetings that are unimportant… but then again: why am I there in the first place?).
  • My over-commitment slows my team down because I cannot give the attention needed to what the team needs and is meant to accomplish. Too many things get postponed or progress gets slowed down because too many cannot focus on what matters most.
  • I’m tired too often during my normal work day.
  • I lack motivation for things I once had motivation for.
  • When I’m stressed and stretched too thin over a long time, my health is impacted. Burnout could be around the corner…

Busyness = I’m important – Really?!

In a conversation with a colleague, I heard myself say “I’m a busy leader” and thought: ‘Wow, I’m important’, ‘Others need me’… But I did not like saying it or hearing it, something was ‘off’. That’s where my discovery began. Over all those years of taking on increased leadership and responsibilities, I kept adding more. It had never occurred to me that in reality, I have limited capacity. Nor had anyone asked me about it. I had actually heard a leader say: “If you need to get something done, give it to a busy person”. And I can understand where they are coming from. Somewhere along the way, my identity (falsely so) got wrapped up in ‘being busy = I am important’… Ouch! Besides that I feel at times obliged by my sense of responsibility, there were times where I said ‘Yes’ because I received approval from others or from accomplishing more. My work and workload had become a source of validation. My growing influence had become a way to measure how important I was… I realized that I was in trouble. Let’s stop glorifying BUSY!

Two Insights That I Found Helpful

Here’s the first one: I needed to learn to say ‘Yes’ to ‘No’!’ When I take on a new job or responsibility, I need to decide what has to go or be given away! I needed to learn to say ‘no’ to more frequently’. And for that to happen, I  had to be really clear about what my main areas of focus and responsibilities should be. I had to think through and then block out the time needed in my day or week.

And the second was: I needed to pay attention to the condition of my heart. All the externals were meant to be expressions and an overflow out of who I truly am. I became aware that being loved and accepted by God is what matters most. Unconditionally loved and accepted. That brought perspective. It brought clarity to pay attention to what is going on inwardly and not get caught up in things that matter less in the long run. Just managing the externals was not sufficient, unless a deeper inner change took place.

Since then, when I am offered more leadership or another project to oversee etc. I ask myself:

  • If I commit to this, where am I going to say ‘No’?
  • What am I no longer going to do or what do I need to give away?
  • How does this relate to my overall mission, my important goals, my calling, and purpose?
  • Will taking this on move me forward towards my life purpose and have a longer-term impact?
  • If I take this on, what impact will it have on myself, my family, my important work?
  • What’s the condition of my heart? What’s my true motivation to committing here?

I give myself the space I need to more deeply connect with what matters most, rather than giving into some pressure to please. I take the time to listen to my heart, and to God.

I’m now happy to recognize my limitations. I embrace them. I am far more clear on my priorities and where and how I can contribute my best. Therefore, I say ‘No’ more easily, and more often. I enjoy the benefits I reap: I get more done, I am more effective, I am more present, I have more energy for the important relationships in my life and have sustainable rhythms. I create space in my calendar for what matters most and space for the unexpected. And I am still learning to get better at it. And I no longer feel important or validated because of what I do. At the same time, I also can look at my work and say: ‘that was good’, and be satisfied. An effective leader knows when and how to say ‘No’ because s/he knows their main mission.

What about you? What are your symptoms when you carry too much?

How do you say ‘No’? What right now would be good to say ‘No’ to?

Coaching Leaders in this area

When I hear the overload and stress from leaders I work with as a coach, I’m aware that likely it’s not just about learning to say ‘No’ to taking on more. It’s important to probe into both the outward dynamics and pressures as well as the deeper work in our motivations, beliefs, and values. And of course probing as well into our identity and where we receive acceptance from. As a coach, my questions will help deepen their reflection and awareness in these areas. I will be listening for both external and internal indicators where the client is motivated to work and then agree what we are focusing on.

Even if much work is accomplished in the internal areas of who the client is, I am aware that the leaders still needs to develop and implement strategies and practical solutions to reach the desired changes. Breaking established patterns and behavior takes time. As a coach, I support her/him to live out their deeper awareness in tangible ways. It’s often in the obstacles that come up between sessions, where the new insights are challenged and with appropriate support the leader works out how to make their insight work practically. The desired change becomes a reality! And leaders want results.

Maybe I should ask at times when someone considers taking on more responsibility: ‘How is this project aligned with where you can give your best or your main mission?’ Or, ‘So, what do you need to let go and say ‘no’ to?’. Or, ‘What motivates you to commit?’ If you are a supervisor or manager, consider this as well when you want to entrust someone with more responsibility! What would you ask to minimize overload?

Reflection & Action

Here are a few more questions that may help you in your reflections or when helping others reflect:

What motivates you to take on more?

What’s going on when you feel the need to be needed?

Where is your identity wrapped up in being needed or in ‘needing to be in leadership’?

What about committing only to where you can give my best?

What are the areas you must say ‘yes’ to?

What is your main mission?

What impact will this have on you, your family, your time?