Why Leaders That Do Much More Accomplish Far Less

June 4, 2019 Chris Pearse

1,280 views Dec 18, 2018, 01:56am

Chris Pearse Contributor I write about the realities and challenges of leadership.


Google “Work Hard” and you’ll find an abundance of articles exhorting you to do just that:

5 Reasons You Need To Work Hard To Get Ahead (Inc)

Why You Should Work Hard At Everything

5 Ways to Motivate Yourself to Work Harder (Inc)

The Reason Why Hard Work Is The Key To Success

The premises are simple:

  • the more you do, the more you achieve
  • the more time you devote to not working hard, the less you achieve
  • the harder you make that work, the better

Admittedly not everyone buys into this argument but it always seem to be bubbling just below the surface:

Some organisations try to balance the work hard ethic with a play hardculture.

Others insist on a work/life balance which implies, through dichotomy, that work is death. But, presumably, as long as it’s a hard death, that’s ok?

To make sense of work, we need to establish that its polar opposite is not life – it is rest. (Mars added an extra dimension to this pairing with their strap line first aired in 1959)

To throw some light on this whole question, we need a couple of metaphors:

Firstly the paper metaphor:

  • Imagine your day as a piece of paper
  • Your work equates to the print on the paper
  • Non-work is represented by the white space

Here are examples of different relationships between white space and print:



Note that there is still plenty of white space visible, but far less than is usual.

Now, the same words, with space introduced as per convention:



Within this metaphor, beyond a certain ratio of print to white space, making sense of the data becomes increasingly difficult – perhaps to the point where we lose the will to understand it.

What this is telling us very clearly is that:

When a pair of variables exist in binary opposition (work/rest, space/type) a balance is required for them to deliver any meaning.

  • 100% white space delivers no meaning
  • 100% type (black space) delivers no meaning

The same is true for work and rest. All work and no rest (apart from making Jack rather dull) is a short cut to resting in peace (an early grave). All rest and no work delivers nothing of any value. Neither is sustainable.

The second metaphor is music. Imagine your favourite piece of music being re-worked to remove all the pauses between each note so that as many notes are played as possible in the time allotted. Now in this example, the victim is not just meaning, it is beauty and feeling. What was once an emotional tear-jerker is reduced to a cacophonous racket of no value.

The fact that a balance is required between these opposites is obvious – the really valuable question is where does the balance lie?

Now the hard workers, of course, claim that balance is restored naturally by the commute, family time, holidays and other pauses to our working lives. But many don’t always get these ‘luxuries’ and, even when they do, remote working is facilitated by the digital communication devices that we carry with us.

Well, there’s always sleep. We cannot survive without sleep so this enforced rest is guaranteed however hard we work.

But this is still tantamount to cramming as many words onto the page as the page will allow. The result is an unholy mess that we cannot make sense of.

And this is exactly the experience of those that work too hard:

They cannot make sense of what they do. Much is done, maybe much is achieved, but little is accomplished and with little significance, meaning or fulfilment.

Cass Business School research paper concludes:

…greater work effort relates strongly to reduced well-being and modestly to inferior career-related outcomes…

The paper suggests that work intensity may be even more detrimental than overtime.

So what’s the solution?

The solution is very simple (simple is not a synonym of easy) and requires leaders to, first and foremost, discipline themselves so that high quality rest is introduced at regular intervals throughout their working days. They will need to change themselves before they can persuade others to follow suit.

The barrier to this change is never workload – although that is usually the first thing to be cited. It is invariably habit and addiction to activity.

In practical terms, introducing quality rest can be as simple as having lunch al fresco (not al desko), alone and without phone, book or magazine, so that the taste of the food becomes the primary focus of one’s attention.

All too often we tend to mix activities, which degrades the experience of both. Driving, drinking coffee, washing up, listening to music all get diluted through multi-tasking.

But ultimately, the most profound rest can only be experienced through a conscious withdrawal from the sensory world that dominates our waking lives and a complete cessation of activity – meditation.

I help leaders accelerate their development and impact through a deepened awareness of our inner dynamics – the belief systems and emotions that shape our leadership. Discover more here…

Chris Pearse

Chris Pearse Contributor

I am an Executive Coach to leaders across diverse sectors including FTSE100s and SMEs. I am also an Interim CEO.