Laziness – The Counterintuitive Act Of Leadership


The following is a guest piece by fellow author (and Canadian) Michael Bungay Stanier.

You jest, sir!

Laziness as leadership? Surely that can’t be correct.

“I didn’t get to where I am now, young man, by being lazy.”

What is this, clickbait?

In fact, no.

Think about the dual responsibilities of any leader: results and people. That one-two combination goes by other names as well: strategy and culture; impact and engagement.

Part of the secret of success for both of these is doing less, not more. Being lazy.

Let me explain.

Part I: Be strategic
Let’s look at a simple model that will help you understand how you spend your time. It categorizes work into three simple types: Bad Work, Good Work and Great Work. Essentially, these are measures not of quality but of impact.

Bad Work is the waste-of-time, soul-crushing bureaucratic work. If you’ve ever thought, “This is my one and precious life; these are hours I’m never going to live again … and I’m somehow doing this!” you’re doing Bad Work.

Good Work is your job description. It’s busy, efficient, and productive. It can also be a comfortable rut.

Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Good Work can do the same. We find ourselves keeping plates spinning, responding to the inbox and attending meetings, mistaking keystrokes and maintenance for impact.

Finally, there’s Great Work. This is the work that has more impact and more meaning. When people talk about change and innovation and “blue ocean strategy,” they’re pointing toward Great Work.

Apply this model to your working life. What would you guess your mix of Bad, Good and Great Work is? I’ve asked more than over twenty thousand managers and leaders that question over the years. About 1% of them claim that more than 50% of their work is Great Work. More telling is the fact that only two people have ever stuck up their hand when I’ve asked, “Who has too much Great Work?”

When Steve Jobs says, “Focus means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are,” he points to the question that lies at the heart of Great Work. It’s the sixth question of the seven essential questions posed in “The Coaching Habit“, and we call it, appropriately enough, the Strategic Question: If you’re saying yes to this, what must you say no to? Because it’s only by defining the boundaries of the “no” that you truly start to see the ambition of the “yes.”

Saying no so you can truly say yes sounds straightforward enough. It’s true that it’s easy enough to say no to the things you want to say no to (at least, most of the time).

It gets trickier when you face up to the fact that that strategy means actually saying no to some of the things you want to say yes to. And trickier again when you realize that saying no to something actually means saying no to someone. Which is why people with the focus and courage to be strategic are rarer than you might think.

In short: Become more strategic by saying no more often and more boldly in support of your Great Work yeses.

Part II: Empower your people
I know you’ve heard about empowerment. We all have. And if you’re like me, the jargon has made your eyes glaze over. “Empowerment” can be one of those empty words that lands with as much edge and credibility as “Our people are our #1 asset” and “Integrity and excellence are our core values.”

But at the same time, we all know there’s something to it. How do you get your people to be more confident, more courageous, more self-sufficient?

The Coaching Habit’s” fifth question is the Lazy Question: How can I help? Now, I realize that sounds like the worst possible question to ask in order to be lazy. Because surely it invites someone to give you a long, detailed list of activities they’d like you to complete.

But, paradoxically, there are two reasons why asking how you can help (or it’s more blunt alternative, “What do you want from me?”) can have you working less hard.

Reason 1: Asking the question slows you down. What you’re primed to do is leap to action. Someone starts talking and within — I’m guessing here, but I’m pretty sure I’m right — a minute or two, you’ve already got in your head The Answer that they need to know.

You go through the motions of active listening, nodding and looking interested and encouraging, but the truth is you’re just waiting for them to stop talking so you can offer up your idea, your solution, your insight, your suggested next step. This is you “adding value.”

Except, of course, so often you’re not. Because the thing you think they need and want is so often not quite the thing they actually need and want. You think you know what they want. They may think they know what they want. But the truth is that, often, until the question is explicitly asked and answered, neither of you is entirely clear.

Reason 2: You’ll come to the freeing realization that when they tell you what they want from you and how you can help them, you have permission to say no. Or maybe. Or “I can’t do this, but I could do that.” You’re welcome to say yes, of course, but you’re not obliged. (See Part 1: Be strategic.)

Part III: The secret of laziness — build a coaching habit
The final secret of being lazy is to automate your curiosity. The behaviour change that’s at the heart of this article (and of “The Coaching Habit“) is simply a little less advice giving and a little more curiosity. That’s easy to say and much harder to do, because you love to say yes (not strategic) and you love to give advice (not empowering).

Habits are the building blocks to behaviour change, and while there’s a lot of terrible and wrong information out there about how to do it — let me tell you now that if you do something for 21 days, it will not become a habit — there’s good information too.

Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit” is terrific, and it points to the importance of understanding the “trigger,” the situation that cues up and sets off the habit, as a vital step in changing the way you work.

BJ Fogg’s work at is also useful, and his insight about “micro-habits” that take a minute or less to complete is powerful. In the free ebook “The Three Essential Coaching Habits for the Time-Crunched Manager“, you’ll find additional information about how to build the New Habit Formula.

So go lazy
I’m not saying to stop working. I’m not saying to put aside ambition. I’m saying this: at a certain point in your career – earlier than you may realize – it’s not about your ability to Get Stuff Done anymore. It’s about helping you and your team do more Great Work – work that has more impact, and work that has more meaning.

Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that gives busy managers the tools to coach in 10 minutes or less. His latest book, “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More and Change the Way You Lead Forever”, has over a hundred five-star reviews on Amazon and has been the #1 book on coaching since its launch. To learn more about Michael’s book and his work, visit his website –

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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