Why Busy Leaders Make Bad Leaders

busy leaders

Ask a lot of people how they are, and they’ll shoot you a single word answer: Busy.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that’s a pet peeve of mine. I hate it when people tell me they’re busy.

What does that really accomplish in the first place? Nothing.

How does it help the person you’re talking to? Right, it doesn’t.

But deeper than my social aggravation is this issue: I’ve noticed that people who usually tell you they’re busy are often bad leaders.

Or flip that. Talk to highly effective leaders and you’ll notice they rarely tell you they’re busy.

In fact, some of the finest leaders I know almost never emit a sense of busyness or overwhelm, yet they’re often juggling 100x more responsibility and weight than the retired person who tells you they’re busier than when they used to work, or the leader of a small organization who is running around like a headless chicken.

So, why do busy leaders make bad leaders?

Here are five reasons bad leaders can’t get their time under control.

Busy leaders make bad leaders. Click To Tweet

1. Busy Leaders Have No Plan

Busy leaders often lack a plan. There’s no structure to their day, or if there is, they don’t stick to it.

By contrast, highly productive and effective leaders have a plan and they stick to it.

If you find yourself too busy, ask yourself, what’s your plan not to be?

Can’t answer that?

That’s why you’re always so busy.

If you find yourself too busy, ask yourself, what's your plan NOT to be? Click To Tweet

2. Busy Leaders Live in Reactive Mode

There are really only two ways to live life: reactively or proactively.

Proactive leaders make things happen. Reactive leaders merely respond to what’s happening.

The vast majority of people live reactively.

Reactive leaders often wait to see what happens and then respond accordingly, or they get diverted from crisis to crisis, issue to issue.

As a result, their most important tasks and responsibilities get pushed to the side.

Hours become days. Days become weeks. Weeks become years. And years become your legacy.

At the end of your life, you accomplished few significant things because all you did was react to what was happening around you.

Leaders who react to what’s happening rarely make things happen.

Leaders who react to what's happening rarely make things happen. Click To Tweet

3. Busy Leaders Let Other People Control Their Time

If you listen closely to the vocabulary of a person who is always telling you that they’re busy, you’ll notice they say things like “I had to” or “I just had no choice.”

Which is exactly their problem.

No, you didn’t have to. Actually, you had a choice.

You could have laid in bed all day if you wanted to. You could have said no. You could have decided how you would spend your day.

You have plenty of choices.

But a busy person never sees that choice.

Constantly complaining that you have no time is a sure sign you let other people control it.

Constantly complaining that you have no time is a sure sign you let other people control your time. Click To Tweet

4. Busy Leaders Don’t Tune Out Distractions

You know what every phone call is, as well as every email, every text message and every knock on the door?

It’s someone trying to superimpose their priorities on you.

I know that sounds harsh…but think about it.

You know you have to get certain priorities accomplished, but my guess is no one ever texts you to ask you whether it’s getting done.

Why is that?

Think about it. People never ask you to accomplish your priorities. They ask you to accomplish theirs.

That’s exactly why you text email and call people, isn’t it?

Effective leaders know how to tune out those minute-by-minute distractions. They check email periodically, not every minute. They silence their devices and focus.

Because no one asks you to accomplish your priorities. They only ask you to accomplish theirs. Effective leaders know that.

No one asks you to accomplish your priorities. They only ask you to accomplish theirs. Click To Tweet

5. Busy Leaders Waste More Time Than They Admit

Busy people love to act like they have no choice and they’re oh-so-slammed.

Until you catch them binge watching Netflix, or lingering over an iced coffee checking Instagram, or talking for 30 minutes at a workmate’s desk about nothing in particular.

I’m not trying to be judgmental. I’m all for iced coffees and Instagram.

It’s just there’s a cognitive dissonance in many of us between what we believe and what’s true.

You have the time for what matters. After all, every leader gets the same 24 hours in a day.

You have the time to get the most important things done. You just didn’t make the time—you spent it doing something else.

It's not that you don't have the time. You just chose not to make the time. Click To Tweet

The Antidote to Busy

So is there a way out of chronic busyness, unproductiveness and that dreaded feeling of overwhelm?

There definitely is.

A lot of people think the solution is a new attitude or a few quick tips.

I promise you it’s much deeper than that.

You need a new strategy.

And that’s why I wrote At Your Best: How to Get Your Time, Energy, & Priorities Working in Your Favor.

What About You?

Tired of being busy? Would love to hear what you think about the curse of busy.

Why Busy Leaders Make Bad Leaders


  1. Katie Lowe Lancaster on December 9, 2021 at 8:29 pm

    I think this is outstanding and insightful. You distinguished the pattern of intentional busyness that makes it almost necessary to react. I like the term high-capacity leader. That isn’t to claim a level of importance but the ability to lead with a great deal of responsibility with clarity. Often these folks are crazy busy but they are working at their capacity (high) and therefore can respond to distractions appropriately. Today, I got called out by one of our elderly members who had asked for a home visit. I could have given her all sorts of reasons that I was too busy to stop what I was doing. Without saying anything her invitation to make an adjustment in my priorities so I could sit with her reminded me that we are called to care for the widow…the sick…the broken. Hard to do when we can’t pause long enough to look and see. Our visit today made me a better pastor and leader.

  2. Carlin on December 9, 2021 at 6:31 pm

    So… what do you do when your job is to handle all the “unpredictable”? I’m an administrative assistant for our lead pastor at a large church… and I also lead several ministry departments (first time guest team, missions, online experience).

    Sometimes I struggle figuring out how your articles apply to us “underlings” who are not point leaders. I know two solutions are to 1. Delegate and 2. Lead up, and work with your supervisor on why last minute asks and extra projects are difficult… but any other tips, when some of your “busy” is determined by others?

  3. Francis Conti on December 9, 2021 at 11:43 am

    Sometimes along the way- our planning and schedules can interfere with God’s purposes. He might lead us to serve in a particular capacity and use that situation to draw our attention to someone or something that no one else has noticed.
    in the book ” Leadership Is an Art – by Max DePree” Max is right- we have to see life and people outside of day in day out schedules. I know how to lead, but I am also an artist- I see things much differently than my boss who is talented in records, timekeeping,etc.

  4. Steve Darnall on December 9, 2021 at 11:03 am

    Re: Making Plans, assessing how we really use our time, organization in general.
    Some of the young people in my discipleship/identity groups often start with responses of “I’m just not an organized person,” or “this is not who I am.”
    Organization is not a personality trait – it is a skill that can be developed just like communication and people skills in general.

  5. Chuck on December 9, 2021 at 6:32 am

    Why Busy Leaders Make Bad Leaders – a general collection of points already written about for decades. I guess if this topic and substance was part of a “plan”, and not a reaction to getting a blog post out, then I’d first suggest re-shaping the focus of the plan. These points, an d many are accurate, can serve a good refresher on the general topic of supervision or working with others in a leadership role. I liked the contrast between proactive and reactive leaders….although I’d suggest the difference is a “leader” anticipates, shapes, causes motion and results to be achieved while any person who is “reactive” is simply busy at things, tasks, etc. Both can matter but one is about leading with purpose. I’d also offer that Carey’s comment about retired folks is inaccurate and reminds that Carey has either none or little direct experience with the transition referred to as “retirement”. Usually if one was busy in a career and transitions away from career, the patterns are set and that life fills up with other parts of a life plan; which generate a lot of demand and care as they are most often service to others. Another part of being a good leader is considering how your words impact others especially when generalizing as much as this rinse and repeat blog has done on this well worn topic. Again though, the points are helpful as a refresher.

  6. […] Leaders are busy people hence their time is precious. Not specifically a good trait some might say. […]

    • Senti aier on December 10, 2021 at 12:08 am

      Very practical

  7. […] Leaders are busy people hence their time is precious. Not specifically a good trait some might say. […]

  8. Links for Leaders 7/14/17 | JoshuaReich.org on July 14, 2017 at 5:12 am

    […] leader is busy but we don’t often realize what our busyness does to us and our churches. Here’s a great list from Carey Nieuwof of what busyness does to a leader and how it holds a ch…. #2 is especially relevant to pastors I […]

  9. Alan on May 30, 2017 at 7:19 pm

    In response to the “harsh” comments, I’d venture to say that this post should simply be labeled “real”. I’ve been browsing the blog, starting at the “10 signs you’re just a jerk, not a leader”, and as a newly-initiated member of project management, I’m ashamed to say how many of these traits I have had challenges with. It’s not so much a character fault, or dislike of my fellow man, but a lack of leadership education. Seeing as that’s what drew me here, and what the blog is about, it appears to be a success.
    Quick example: as someone in the IT industry, people clamor for my time. My job profile is changing, unbeknownst to those people. Starting off, I took the time and fell back into my comfortable ways of helping everyone on demand, and was blasted for not accomplishing my other goals. A quick gut check of my time spent revealed that I a.) wasn’t focusing on my projects, and therefore wasting time, and b.) wasn’t telling anyone “no”. Once I allowed myself to redirect these requests to others and explain that my current focus didn’t allow for constant interruption, my time management and productivity grew greatly. I find myself getting distracted less and less as my scheduling skills grow, and redirecting others for help goes more smoothly.
    I’d venture to say this series of blog posts is as real as I’ve read lately. Google defines harsh as “jarring to the senses”, and I do indeed hope that more people experience that in order to better themselves.

    • Pait on June 12, 2017 at 7:21 pm

      That is very fainacsting, You’re an excessively skilled blogger. I’ve joined your feed and look ahead to looking for more of your excellent post. Also, I have shared your web site in my social networks!

      • vincent wilson on December 9, 2021 at 12:34 pm

        Very practical. Want to be focused. Don’t want others to tell me what Ki should be doing.

  10. […] Carey Nieuwhof   |   Why Busy Leaders Make Bad Leaders […]

  11. Jasmine on May 22, 2017 at 12:41 am

    Definitely me!! Thank you for always articulating things out of my head with both grace and practical how to’s.

  12. Mike on May 20, 2017 at 10:52 pm

    Interesting post, Carey. I definitely agree that busyness seems to be an indication of poor prioritization and leading.

    Do you think addiction to action also contributes? With my work in the hi-tech sector, I definitely feel a constant pressure to always be doing something, even if the right thing to do is sit and think.

    Some of my reading has taken me to other cultures. I think the West can learn from the East in the areas of patience and discipline.

    • Kellsie on June 12, 2017 at 7:55 pm

.how many times did she tell us that we shouldn’t cut off length before taking it in?” So my inner voice had a good chuckle when it saw that you forgot your own advice. Good to know you also make mistakes like that 🙂

  13. Tim on May 20, 2017 at 10:23 pm

    Great. Harsh, but great. I went down the list to critically evaluate why I feel so busy. Number 4 was the one I feel is my place to start.

    I feel I’m less busy now than a year ago, but still have some ways to go before greeting it right. Partly because I’m trying to juggle a full time job with a ministry that my (self imposed) expectations require a another full time commitment load.

    At least now that my theological studies (wad completing part time for the past 4 years) have finished life I’d beginning to return to a new normal – but a lot of the elastic had stretched out of my rubber band.

    May have to wait a while to be “less busy” to have time for the leadership course you’re offering!☺

  14. Weekend Leadership Roundup - Hope's Reason on May 20, 2017 at 11:11 am

    […] Why Busy Leaders Make Bad Leaders – Carey Nieuhof […]

  15. Kelvin Bueckert on May 20, 2017 at 9:36 am

    Perhaps this post seems a little harsh…but, this post is the truth, and it is the truth that will set us free…(if we apply it.)

  16. Jane Woelk on May 19, 2017 at 10:15 pm

    This post was extremely harsh, with and/or philosophies that only cause guilt, rather than bring helpful solutions. Life has to offer grey areas where you just say to yourself that interruptions are the ministry. The interruptions are being productive; they are what a person is called by God to address. This blog is self-serving, not Christ-serving. As much as self-care, unplugging and all the rest of recommended coping mechanisms are important and necessary, this blog often comes across as “my way or the highway,” even bullying. One example of that is in your book where you say that being in pain is selfish. That is a very harmful generalization and should not be in a book about equipping clergy.

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