Previously published on Forbes
A dear friend of mine once offered me this valuable bit of wisdom that I have engaged over and over in my career as an executive coach: Don’t work harder than your client.
Sometimes I care more than they do about their leadership transformation, and I have had to learn to do less. To ring my hands with worry and anxiety less. To settle down and let life happen a bit more. To not try to control all of the outcomes. It’s been a journey.
To over-labor means to do something with great physical, emotional or intellectual effort. Of course, some tasks in our working world require this. But be thoughtful about it. Not every day requires a herculean effort.
In graduate school, one of my professors shared a radical idea that he called “middle-laning.” The analogy is derived from the highway where there is a fast lane, a middle lane and a slow lane. Hustle culture says that you must be in the fast lane going faster than those around you. You have to hurry up and get there first.
The philosophy of the middle lane is one of moderation and pacing. One of doing less. You’ll still get there. But you won’t burn through your fuel as fast. This way of working seems to resonate with the generations of younger employees who are not interested in sacrificing their lives for the corporation. They are demanding something far beyond work/life balance. They want a life first. You might call them middle-laners.
But how do you do less as a leader? Don’t you set the pace and others follow? Don’t you have to train your team members the “right way” to do their job? And then provide feedback and coaching and support them day-by-day as they learn? Isn’t the heavy lift on your shoulders?
Let’s assume that you’ve hired people with the skills and knowledge required to do their jobs. Rather than instruct and tell and micro-manage, consider that maybe all you have to do is ask them to do what you need done, by when and with clear outcomes. Of course, you have to make sure that they have the necessary resources (time, money, support staff, etc). After you do, try this radical idea:
Get out of the way. Do less.
The Gift of Doing Less
Several months ago, I hired a highly skilled curriculum designer for our team. She’s experienced, credentialed and smart. She knows what she’s doing. But I began to over-labor. I was going to train her to design the way I do. I blocked hours and days on my calendar to onboard her.
Then, life happened. A family member died, and I was unceremoniously removed from all work-related meetings and conversations for several weeks while my family and I attended to the heart-heavy work of grieving.
My team member thrived in my absence. She took matters into her own hands and worked efficiently and well. I was so grateful. I had labored less than I had planned in onboarding her. Did she do things exactly the way I would? No. Did her way work? Absolutely. A powerful lesson for me.
When I came back to work, the only thing to do was to stay out of her way. To cheer from behind and provide occasional guidance, when needed. In other words, to do less.
Thanks to her skill and energy, I have more free time, which I had been craving for writing and research. My days are moving into the middle lane, so to speak. Here I find more creativity, more big questions, more sensibility. I am not lifting with herculean effort or moving as fast as I used to. And yet I feel like I am contributing more to the field of leadership. All by doing less.
Take a look at your hours and days. Are they spent in a dizzying flurry of rushing and breathlessness? What can you stop doing? Where can you slow down? Can you imagine doing less?