Back in October, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani harshly criticized President Obama for campaigning while recovery efforts from Superstorm Sandy were ongoing. Ironically, only days before, Michael Brown,director in the George W. Bush administration during Hurricane Katrina, slammed the President for acting prematurely to mobilize resources to the superstorm.
In December, former Vice President Al Gore criticized President Obama for inaction on global warming. At the same time, other critics were challenging the President, insisting that he should not be spending any time on divisive social issues while unemployment remained high.
Recently, in the same week that Forbes magazine was criticizing the President's attention to the economy, Congress was seriously considering $1.2 trillion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts to discretionary federal funding. In contradiction, several prominent economists predict that such deep, indiscriminate budget cuts will cause unemployment to surge and will slow down the country's fragile economic recovery.
As I watched the news at the gym this morning, I noted that the President's current agenda includes:
Replacing key cabinet members in the face of Congressional opposition
Addressing the national debt while avoiding budget sequestration
Confronting the issue of gun violence in our country while honoring our Constitution
Granting access to classified documents pertaining to targeted killing
Reforming the nation's immigration laws
Taking action on climate change
Reducing persistently high unemployment
It seems as if the President has some serious multi-tasking to do. However, thanks to several recent scientific studies, we know that, despite conventional wisdom, continual multi-tasking doesn't really work. Unfortunately, I have started to notice business and leadership writers seizing on those studies, implying that real leaders should somehow pinpoint their focus on a single important issue. However, that both distorts the real meaning of those studies and ignores the reality of most contemporary workplaces. Perhaps organizations exist where leaders can parse their priorities to that extent, but I don't know anybody who works for one of those organizations. So, what is the reality?
Let's get back to the President. What choice does he have? Which of those issues should he let lie? In reality, contemporary leaders, including the President, must walk and chew gum at the same time.
OK, so Wildfire readers are not the President of the United States. However, whether President or fire management officer, the implications are the same. In the present-day organizational environment, an effective leader must be able to think about and make progress on more than one thing. These days, when I talk to my fire management officer friends and colleagues, they are guiding their programs toward a compelling vision, adapting to new working environments, building trusting and effective relationships among their resources, developing employees to keep their leadership pipeline full and planning for another year of severe drought — all while trying to figure out if, under a sequestered budget, they can maintain adequate resources to redeem their responsibilities. Just like the President, today's fire managers lack the luxury of working on just one thing. You have to be able to both walk and chew gum.
However, I am not really talking about multi-tasking, performing two or more tasks simultaneously, rapidly switching back and forth from one thing to another, or performing several tasks in rapid succession. Too many of today's managers are far too distracted as it is. In the past, we thought of multi-tasking as a path to greater productivity, and people took pride in their multi-tasking style. However, recent research makes two things clear. First, multi-taskers are rarely as effective as they think they are. Second, most heavy multi-taskers are actually taking a serious toll on their productivity, their ability to avoid distraction and even their cognitive ability.
So, when I say leaders must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, I am not really advocating multi-tasking. In fact, I am reminded of a speech that William Deresiwicz, a former Yale University professor, delivered to the plebe class at West Point a couple of years ago. Deresiwicz contended that leaders find the answers to the questions they face through introspection and concentrated, focused thinking without distraction. Similarly, rather than getting things done by multi-tasking their way through the day, I advise leaders facing several weighty matters to unplug every now and then; get somewhere quiet; and focus their attention on sustained, concentrated thought.
In today's environment, where our leaders are often facing several serious matters at once, they may actually have to make time for a little solitude and sustained thinking more often than not. So, when walking and chewing gum, make sure you walk with purpose and chew smartly.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.
Mike DeGrosky is chief executive officer of the Guidance Group, a consulting organization specializing in the human and organizational aspects of the fire service, and an adjunct instructor in leadership studies for Fort Hays State University. Follow him on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.