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Don’t delay

26 March 2015

The article at a glance

Procrastination and effective leadership don’t mix, argues David De Cremer. People are advised since childhood not to put off ‘til tomorrow what …

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Procrastination and effective leadership don’t mix, argues David De Cremer.

Don't delay
People are advised since childhood not to put off ‘til tomorrow what they can do today, but in fact human nature often produces procrastination. And that undermines effective leadership, argues David De Cremer, KPMG Professor of Management Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School.

From business leaders to politicians – just think about tortuous talks surrounding various euro crises – people have a tendency to kick issues down the road, hoping they’ll either go away or be easier to solve a bit later. But this is not true leadership of a type designed to inspire confidence in leaders themselves or their grand projects.

David De Cremer
Professor David De Cremer

In general, leaders who procrastinate will not perform as well as leaders who can resist such temptation. The problem faced by many business leaders is that they simply don’t recognise that they procrastinate and act in a less-than-proactive manner.

Procrastination often flows from a work atmosphere characterised by distrust, because that breeds uncertainty, fear and a natural inclination to avoid drawing attention to oneself through new initiatives.

For leaders, the way to overcome these issues is to have a clear list of priorities and a well-articulated plan on how to pursue them – focused on broad goals and vision rather than small details.

Leaders who delay important decisions create an “onion effect.” Successive layers of delayed decisions are wrapped around the previous ones, making it difficult to unravel when quick decisions are needed in a crisis and leading to general paralysis in decision-making due to excessive complexity.

But let’s be clear: there’s a huge difference between being proactive and being impulsive. In fact, impulsive leadership only breeds a procrastinating culture that can’t keep focused on the particular task at hand.

So as long as they have clear plans and a defined path to achieving them, effective leaders really shouldn’t put off ’til tomorrow what can be achieved today. And if they do, they risk losing confidence of their staff, resulting in lowered commitment, defection and lowered organisational performance.

David De Cremer, who joined Cambridge Judge Business School last autumn, is the author of The Proactive Leader: How to Overcome Procrastination and be a Bold Decision-Maker. David will deliver his inaugural lecture on Monday 13 April at 17:15 at Cambridge Judge, speaking on “The new leadership: on the challenge of building a trustworthy and pro-active work culture”.