Seven deadly sins of leadership: Sloth

In this seven-part series, Nick Humphrey explores the seven deadly sins of leadership and how they can adversely affect the performance of teams. Nick considers some unexpected strategies for managing these traits, including lessons learnt from not just professional sports coaches, performance psychologists and top CEOs but also pirates, super-chickens and monkeys.



The first deadly sin is “sloth”, which means “laziness, not making an effort”.


What is sloth?

There are some fairly obvious examples of slothful leadership. The boss who comes into the office late, only to read the paper with a coffee and his feet on the desk. After checking on their stock portfolio, they head off for a long leisurely lunch with a few bottles of chardonnay. They are the bosses who are completely hands-off, absent, disinterested and inactive. The first type of sloth is the “Fat Cat”.


Less apparent are the complacent leaders. They rest on their laurels, rolling out the same old strategies and programs, oblivious to dynamic and complex competitive forces. The fact they might be perfectly nice and agreeable, makes them no less lazy. The second type of sloth is the “Cardigan wearer.”


Harder still are the manic, yet ineffective leaders. The ones who are “busy being busy”, a whirlwind, calling endless meetings, sending dozens and dozens of useless emails (doing “fake work”) but find it hard to do the tough jobs like resolving conflicts. The third type of sloth is the “Tassie Devil.”


Why is sloth bad for performance?

Infectious: Laziness is like a disease, it infects everyone, dragging us all down. As they say, “a fish rots from the head down”. Leaders who are the “Fat Cats” and set the tone by coming in late, going to long lunches and ignoring their duties, give permission to everyone else to do the same. Teams that are lazy, become unproductive, make mistakes and lose the confidence of their clients and colleagues.


Energy: Similarly, the “Cardigan Wearers” tend to have low energy and low impact. When you are complacent as a leader, you take your foot off the accelerator, your team loses their sense of urgency and the business is unlikely to be ready for changes in the market. They are simply cruising along, doing things the way they have always been done and will get crushed by more dynamic and agile leaders who are willing to experiment, open to learning new techniques/strategies and push the boundaries.


Ineffective: The “Tassie Devil” may have energy and may be trying to set an example about work ethics, but they can’t seem to deliver the results. They are reactive, working on problems as and when they arise, rather than driving a proactive agenda. They might do things right but aren’t doing the right things. They are so busy going to meetings or sending to emails they don’t have time to plan, set strategy or find time/energy to focus on the important issues.


Gradual: Flavius Renatus wrote in 430AD about his concern with the lack of discipline in the ranks of the Roman army. After years of peace, the soldiers had become less and less disciplined and idleness has crept in. First they had complained that their greaves were too heavy and took them off during training. Before long they had also removed their helmets, as they were uncomfortable. Sloth overcame the ranks in degrees. When they faced the Gauls, the Romans were routed by the fierce, battle hardened warriors.


Strategies for counteracting sloth

The opposite trait of sloth is hard work. If you think about your career and life, what makes you the proudest? What has been the most satisfying? It certainly has not been binge watching television or wasting hours flipping through social media! It is most likely to come from when you faced your fears, worked hard to improve yourself or overcame a meaningful challenge.


Facing the uncomfortable: When we think about “hard work”, grinding out long hours is the first thing to come to mind. But this virtue may be more subtle than that. The “hard” aspect is potentially facing those things that make you feel uncomfortable.


In the fable of the Holy Grail, it is said the Knights of the Round Table had to search high and low for an artefact that could have been hidden anywhere with the clue: “That which you most need is where you least want to look.” So the knights each went to face the darkest parts of the forest.[1]


Perhaps the hard work is facing the things that you dread doing: talking to an under-performing employee; tackling your super-star salesman who is also a bully; making the call to a client you have let down for not delivering on promises.


Focus on effectiveness: It is important to recognise the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, two terms that are often mistakenly used interchangeably. Being efficient is to perform a given task quickly and with minimal resources but does not consider whether the task itself is important or necessary. Being effective is doing the tasks that help you achieve your goals faster.


Being efficient is important but futile if applied to the wrong tasks. Unfortunately, the fact that it takes a long time doesn’t make the task important.


Beware busyness trap: It is easy to get caught up in the “busyness trap”. You work harder and harder, taking on more and more activities. Busy climbing a mountain to “success”, only to find it is the wrong one. So one can be very busy but not at all effective. Worse still, “busyness” makes you feel like you are productive but really means you are delaying doing the one or two things that are really important.


Being a constant learner: Another element of facing sloth is the importance of being a constant student; to keep learning and mastering. Several studies have found that top CEOs tend to read a lot of business books, as many as 60 a year.[2]


Warren Buffett recommends:

Read 500 pages…every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.[3]

According to Tom Corley, wealthy people have strong reading habits:

  • 88% read 30 minutes or more every day.

  • 63% listen to audiobooks during their commute.

  • 79% read educational career-related material.

  • 58% read biographies of successful people.[4]

Similarly, a recent study by University of Queensland, Professor Cliff Mallett, found that serial winning coaches were all not only well educated but:


“they have an insatiable thirst for (evidence based, peer reviewed) knowledge. They are looking, searching and hunting down the next big thing, the next 5%. This search – according to the data – is driven by a deep dark doubt, driving the obsession to ‘stay ahead’. These coaches are always striving, driven by the fear of not being good enough.”[5]


Focus on results: A word of warning about sloth. Hard work for the sake of it can be counter-productive. Everyone needs down time to recharge and maintain balance. Leaders should be more focused on results than mere hours. Patty McCord from Netflix, who prepared the influential slide deck “Hard Work is Irrelevant” (now downloaded over 16 million times), argued that hard work is irrelevant and it is only that results matter.[6]

About the author

Nick Humphrey is the managing partner of Hamilton Locke. He is the Chairman of the Australian Growth Company Awards and author of a number of best-selling books on business and leadership. His latest book is Maverick Executive: strategies for Driving Clarity, Effectiveness and Focus, published by Wolters Kluwer.


Sources

1. Jordan Peterson, “Truths That Matter”, 8 Apr 2004, tvo.org, https://tvo.org/transcript/899812/video/archive/maps-of-meaning/truths-that-matter

2. Carrie M. King, “The Average CEO Reads 60 Books a Year – Find Out Why”, 20 April 2018, Blinkist Magazine, https://www.blinkist.com/magazine/posts/most-ceos-read-60-books-per-year

3. Kathleen Elkins, “Berkshire Hathaway star followed Warren Buffett's advice: Read 500 pages a day”, 27 March 2018, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/27/warren-buffetts-key-tip-for-success-read-500-pages-a-day.html

4. Tim Corley, “16 Rich Habits”, 8 September 2016, SUCCESS Magazine, https://www.success.com/16-rich-habits/

5. James Vaughan, “Key characteristics of the world’s best coaches”, Player Development Project, https://playerdevelopmentproject.com/key-characteristics-of-the-worlds-best-coaches/

Steve Henn, “Hard Work is Irrelevant”, 13 September 2017, NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2017/09/13/550793717/episode-647-hard-work-is-irrelevant


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