What are leadership sugar hits?

Last time, I spoke about the fact that leaders are what they EAT – i.e. their impact is a result of where they spend their Energy, Attention and Time. Today, I am going to draw your attention to something that I call leadership sugar hits.

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we eat a donut. Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we eat a donut. Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Speaking literally, when we are low on energy and craving something to fix that quickly, we often reach for something high in sugar – it works temporarily and then often leaves us feeling worse. Afterwards we often find ourselves lower on energy, with a sense of guilt and if you are like me, often write off the day and say that good eating will start tomorrow!

Metaphorically, a leadership sugar hit is the equivalent of solving our afternoon slump with a chocolate bar.

In the context of leadership, a sugar hit is anything that has one or more of the following:

  • It makes you feel temporarily better or removes an immediate pain point without adding significant value

  • It eventually makes things worse than when they started (in the short, mid or long term)

  • You find yourself doing it even though the rational part of your brain knows it’s not ideal!

Here are some examples – going from obvious to less obvious – to illustrate the point. You will be able to add your own of examples from your own experience – from what you have either seen or done.

“I’ll just do it myself”

This is a classic sugar hit. A problem lands on your desk or inbox via a team member. You know how to fix it and helping someone to fix it themselves is going to take you Energy, Attention and Time that you would rather not waste. So, you do it. It’s done quickly and easily without any fuss. All of that is great in the short term and doesn’t do anything to help the other person do it for themselves next time. It also means that you are increasing dependence on you for this problem rather than supporting your team’s independence. Apart from scratching the immediate itch, this hasn’t helped a lot.

Only ever being in the detail

Attention to detail is an admirable and valuable approach to work. It’s important to make the distinction that attention to detail is not inherently a sugar hit. It’s a sugar hit when it’s not the best way to spend your Energy, Time and Attention. Your value as a leader is unlikely to only be your attention to detail – it’s more likely to be your ability to understand the detail in the context of what your team and organisation is trying to achieve. Only ever being in the detail is a sneaky sugar hit because detail can often be important work. Yes, it could be important that the policy wording is correct or that the font matches brand guidelines. This is work that you have chosen (by design or default) over of other, potentially higher value work. The question worth asking is whether it is the most important work that you could be doing. If the answer is no, chances are it’s a sugar hit.

Doing it straight away

I recently read Smart Work by Dermot Crowley and came across a great term that he used about reactive work. Most of us get that working at the last minute is not the best way to operate and this book suggested that working in the first minute (as soon as the work lands with you) is also not the most productive approach. It’s not necessarily choosing the best work for your Energy, Attention and Time. Dermot captures this beautifully by saying “it is an illusion to think that by doing things the minute they come in, and getting them off your plate, you are working more effectively”. Ouch. This makes me think of times when I write something on my to-do list that I have already done – just so that I can cross it off! Sugar hit!

Sugar is often referred to as a “sometimes food”. That is, as part of an otherwise healthy diet, when you are aware of how much and how often you are consuming sugar – it’s fine. There are no long term health problems. The problem arises when sugar forms a disproportionate part of your diet – too much and/or too often and over time you can expect to increase your risk of chronic diseases. In dietary terms:

The problem with sugar is about consumption patterns – how much, how often and when.

Same deal with your leadership sugar. There may be times that you decide that a sugar hit is exactly what you need. That’s fine. I’m not judging – in both leadership and dietary terms, I have often succumbed to a sugar craving! Just know that your leadership will become less effective over time if you are constantly resorting to short term solutions that don’t add value and (at risk of thrashing this metaphor) are not nourishing to those that you lead with and for.

My questions for you to consider this week are:

  1. What are your sugar hits?

  2. When (or with who) are you most likely to resort to a sugar hit?

  3. How much of your leadership Energy, Attention and Time do you spend on sugar hits?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.