Jo Owen 3 Oct 2018 11:15am

The importance of idleness in reaching goals

The less there is to management, the better. The paradigm of idleness may seem an odd concept to promote, but doing little in a focused way works, as Ronald Reagan proved

The best manager I ever had was also the idlest. This meant he delegated everything he possibly could. At the time, I did not read that as a sign of idleness. I read it as a sign of trust: he was trusting me with more and more responsibility. That is very good news for someone who wants to advance their career.

Idleness leads to delegation, trust and high performance. What’s not to like? This paradigm of idleness raises a fundamental question: what is the point of a manager? If the manager can delegate everything they do, then they delegate away their job. In practice, even the idlest manager needs to be very clear about where and how they can add value.

The patron saint of idle managers was Ronald Reagan. The American president was always in his pyjamas by 8pm watching TV with a TV dinner. He played a lot of golf. He also just happened to end the Cold War and bequeathed Reagonomics to the world. We are unlikely to hear of Mayonomics 30 years hence. So how could he achieve so much while being so idle?

You may like or loathe former president Reagan, but he succeeded in the narrow sense of achieving what he set out to achieve. There were three secrets to his success.

  1. He was very clear about what he wanted to achieve. Domestically, he wanted deregulation, tax cuts and limits to government spending (Reagonomics). Globally, he wanted to stand up to the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union. The result was higher defence spending, a new nuclear disarmament deal and the end of détente and the cold war.
  2. He built a strong team. After one long round of golf with an old friend, the friend asked if Reagan ought to get back to running the country. “Oh no,” replied Reagan, “I have lots of good people who do that for me.”
  3. He was clear about where he could add value, and he focussed on that. As an ex-actor he was a great communicator who projected sunny optimism about the nation’s future, summed up in his “Morning in America” re-election bid. He used his talent to cajole congress and persuade people to support him and his agenda.

This was the same formula that my idle boss had.

  1. He was very clear about what he wanted to achieve: he wanted to build an outstanding practice in financial services. He simply had no interest in anything else, which he regarded as distractions. He had relentless focus.
  2. He built the strongest team he could. He invested serious time and effort in finding and developing the best talent. He could then rely on the talent to deliver the outcomes required, to delight clients and to develop new IP to attract more clients. The team would do this with minimal management.
  3. He was very clear about where he added value. First, he focussed on acquiring and keeping clients. He put his liver on the line in pursuit of business and it worked for the business, if not for his liver. Second, he played hard at budget time.

His view was simple: it is better to work hard one month to agree an achievable budget, than to work hard for 11 months trying to deliver a challenging budget. This also meant that he always beat budget and got a bigger bonus than more naïve managers who signed up to challenging budgets, which they struggled to achieve.

It is standard operating procedure to feel overworked. If you think about what you can delegate, you will conclude that you can delegate very little. Instead, ask a different question: where do I add value and is there anything I cannot delegate? This focuses you on the few things where you truly make a difference. The rest of work is simply noise.

Focus on the signal, not the noise, and you can achieve more and work less. Idleness works, if you know how.