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Leadership Success and Its Greatest Barrier: the Law of Administrivia

Years ago, a very wise, and often cynical boss of mine asked me for a definition of management. After reflecting on the question I proceeded to give him an intellectually careful and, I thought, accurate definition. He allowed me to complete the answer and then came back with his definition which was, 'Management is just one darn thing after another.' After having a good laugh, I thought about his remark and concluded that he had basically identified what makes life so challenging for those in leadership positions. The flow of 'things to do' never seems to stop.

How often have you gone home at the end of a day feeling frustrated because you had accomplished far less than you had planned? How many times has your 'To Do' list grown by more items in one day than you marked off in a whole week? For most of us, this has happened far too often.

The larger problem is that the 'To Do' list we make for ourselves gets longer because somebody else adds to that list - more often than not, our boss. Frequently that list seems to be growing by an endless number of tasks that have more benefit to someone else, and very little benefit to getting our jobs done. While the list grows longer with these less critical items, our own list of critical, mission essential items seems to get more and more delinquent.

Most leaders are faced with conflicting priorities and almost invariably somebody else is making the decision as to what our priorities must be. It could be a boss, but it can also be a customer, a vendor or even an organizational peer. In short, demands on our time come from many places, and all too often those demands appear to be less essential than our own priorities. The real tragedy, however, is that most of us also opt to complete the priorities of others before we accomplish our own. This is not irrational, but it is often the wrong choice.

One of the long-standing principles in economics is called Gresham's law. It states that if two currencies are circulating in an economy - one a high-quality currency that everybody trusts and believes in and the other a poor-quality currency that everybody thinks has substantial risk - then 'the bad currency will drive out the good currency.' This means that everybody will want to hoard the good currency and give the bad to other people whenever they can.

In leading, the same principle applies. I call it 'The Law of Administrivia.' That Law postulates that' Required or less useful activity drives out desirable and useful activity. In other words, people will do the tasks that they think are easy, trivial, and required first, in order to get them out of the way. Then, with the time left over, they will do what is desirable or useful but not required. In short, people will do trivial administrative tasks (what I term 'administrivia') first just to avoid trouble with the boss. Then they concentrate on that which they know to be useful. Unfortunately this creates a dilemma since the amount of administrivia grows once the boss concludes you are able to handle what you have already been given to accomplish. That boss continues to pile on the work.

Eventually you do less and less of what you want or need to do and much more of the administrative work. Worse still, since administrivia is usually easy work, while being a leader is hard work, guess which work you end up spending more time on? The easy jobs. After a while, all that gets done is the required, the trivial, and maybe even the useless.

Of course, not all administrative work is meaningless or trivial. Indeed, much of the success in an organization rests on process and process controls. The science of modern management demands that we have process wrapped around the technical work. From Frederick Taylor and his scientific management to Peter Drucker and his focus on management as a profession, we have been told that all that Planning, Organizing, Controlling stuff is essential to success.

The hierarchy of every company needs to know what is happening and how the business is running, so even in the smallest of companies there will be a seemingly endless string of reports. These reports range from volume counts, to process controls, to the financial plans, budgets and actual performance measurements. In any given day, it often seems that we could literally spend most of the day completing reports.

If reports and other administrivia activities are all that a work leader has time for, then they will ultimately hamper the leader's effectiveness. Every one of us who are responsible for 'getting work accomplished' must spend time being a leader of the staff. This means spending 'face time' with our associates, helping them understand what is expected of them and making certain that they are competent to achieve results. This is hard work and can be very time consuming, but it is essential work.

Bosses often forget how much time and energy real leadership really takes. Leaders who use planning, organization and control as effective tools to handle the work flow will have more time available for leader work. Those who allow the administrivia to consume their time and energy will have nothing left for leadership. If the administrative work is effective, then you will be free to lead. If it is not, then you will be a less effective leader.

Parts of the Law of Administrivia have been recognized for some time. Saul Gellerman wrote in 1968, 'The simple fact is that most managerial jobs are already more than full-time jobs. The typical manager has more than enough to worry about. His typical solution is to arrange his problems in order of priority, deal with the ones he has time for, and just ignore the rest. In other words, that which is urgent gets done and that which is merely important frequently doesn't.' What we are adding is that frequently the urgent is not essential to the mission but rather just easier to ask for or to accomplish.

Look at the activities you engage in and determine if they are critical to your efforts to succeed. If you are spending time doing tasks other than leadership actions, then you are wasting time. If your efforts to lead are frustrated because you are preoccupied with administrative tasks, then you need to find a way to break loose from the constraints of those activities. You will find leader actions need not be so time-consuming that you have no time for anything else. In fact, if you do the leader work well, you will have plenty of time for administrative tasks. The only way you are going to break loose is when you realize that leader work is the only way to achieve your goals and objectives. It is the 'good work.' You must fight the natural and destructive tendency to be ruled by 'The Law of Administrivia.' For more go to

About the Author

Mr. Czarnecki helps organizations achieve peak performance through effective leadership, focused strategy, effective organization and sound financial management. He also speaks and conducts seminars on corporate governance and his book, You're In Charge - What Now? provides work leaders with seven principles for peak performance, all of which tie to the simple to remember mnemonic 'L.E.A.D.E.R.S.'


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