How to Get Off the Treadmill So You Can Be a More Strategic Leader

Tired, Stressed, Frustrated?

woman exhaustedDo you feel tired and stressed by the high workload you deal with every day and frustrated by the fact that, no matter what you do, you can’t get off the treadmill. No matter how well you set priorities and delegate more work, it just keeps piling up.

As Senior Executives we’ve developed a sense of misplaced pride in being “busy”! The most common answer to the mundane question: “How are you?” includes “I’m busy …”. We keep busy all day in order to feel productive and accomplished! The day’s events pull us in multiple directions and we feel good because we’re managing to keep up. We use caffeine to keep up the pace and then go home for a glass of wine to release the stress of having survived another day.

In the meantime our dreams are laid to rest and can lie dormant for years, even decades. We leave our high intelligence to create a better future on the bench; we push our real aspirations aside while we focus on urgent daily demands; and we fail to live a purposeful and meaningful life where we leave our own personal legacy in the world. All because we’re stuck on a treadmill that we can’t get off and delude ourselves into thinking that being busy means we’re making a difference!

I’ve found that if we see time differently, use our conscious energy differently and integrate strategic team leadership into our schedules, we can step off the treadmill. We can then use our talents to be true leaders and create a better world in that part of the world we affect and impact.

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.” – Mahatma Gandhi


  1. See Time Differently

When we try to do as much as possible each day, we can become highly effective operators, but we can’t become strategic leaders. The intention to do as much as possible each day has the effect of filling each day to the brim! Indeed we do overtime and take work home to deal with the overflow each day. This leads to stress, fatigue and ultimately burnout. We end up feeling that we’re in a rut and life doesn’t seem to get any better no matter what.

One of the first things we can do is to view time differently. There’s more to time than quantity! There’s quality of time but not in the way we normally think about it. We think about “quality time” as time we spend in genuine relationship with someone, listening and talking from our hearts to support, encourage and enjoy good times with people important to us.

frequenciesBut there’s also quality of time in terms of our different brain frequencies. When we’re in busy Beta, running from one thing to the next, we cannot be creative and innovative. We need to step through into active Alpha brain frequency to access our intuition and realize new insights and revelations that lead to higher order understanding and breakthrough solutions.

When we do this time is no longer just quantifiable. It seems to stretch and expand to enable us to prepare quality presentations in the nick of time, create brand new solutions just as they’re needed and realize new connections and patterns that were otherwise invisible to us.

90 minutesIf we meditate regularly (taking us into the Theta brainwave frequency), we can access Alpha more easily. But there’s also another more practical way. The magic formula is simply 90 minutes. 90 minutes is aligned with our daily Circadian rhythm. After 90 minutes in Alpha frequency we naturally feel like a break and need to shift to mundane work that is less demanding. Provided we do this for 15 to 30 minutes, we’re ready to go into Alpha mode again!

When the famous psychologist Ericsson researched top musicians, and later athletes, chess players and other people at the top of their field, he found that just about everyone practiced the same way. In three 90-minute segments beginning in the morning interceded by a time-out break.

This is why offsite workshops are often run in 90-minute segments. This time period creates an open space for creative thinking. A time to explore questions, probe for new insights and inquire into each others’ perspectives in order to develop our understanding of the deeper concerns, challenges, values and aspirations that are important to us.

So the first step to be a strategic leader and perform to your highest potential is to shift from rolling 60-minute meetings to a series of 90-minute meetings interceded by 30 minute administrative breaks when we cover off emails, phone calls, reports and other desk work or allow time for travel.


  1. Use Our Conscious Energy Purposefully

The second factor that enables us to perform at a strategic level where we work on the world as well as in it, is to appreciate how we use our limited amount of conscious energy each day.

We do most things every day habitually, on autopilot, say around 80% of the time. These are oBrainur habits. Habits require much less energy than when we learn to do something new. This is why it is so challenging to change our habits. We need to do this just one step at a time or move into an entirely new environment so that we naturally revise our automatic behaviours.

When we consciously set up a new program of activities in our brain, and repeat it frequently, we create a new autopilot. This is like driving the familiar route home. We can do this virtually without conscious thinking. However when we drive an unfamiliar route, we need to use our conscious energy to navigate – to decide which lane to be in, to look out for the right turnoff and to be on the alert for traffic signals.

The same principle applies to our weekly schedule. When we run each day differently, where meetings are rescheduled over and over, and there is no pattern or rhythm to our week or month, we need to use our conscious energy on navigation. As we only have so much conscious energy each day, we’re wasting it on navigation when we could be using it on strategic and creative thinking. Rather than feeling energized at the end of the day, we feel exhausted.

So the second step is to create an autopilot in our weekly schedule by setting up a series of repeating meetings. Ideally each 120-minute section begins at the same time each day e.g. 9am, 11am, 2pm and 4pm. If we have the same type of meeting on a regular basis, we can begin to navigate our week on autopilot just like driving home and conserve our conscious energy for important strategic and interpersonal work.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Aristotle


  1. Schedule Strategic Leadership

The third element is to integrate a preset series of meetings into our schedule on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis. Instead of setting priorities in terms of the work that needs the most urgent attention, we institute a strategic agenda into our schedule. This creates a series of channels that carry the relevant content. As a strategic leader, our perspective shifts from the content to the channel.

This enables us to transcend the noise. The preset series of channels in our diary automatically attract relevant work and divert the irrelevant. They operate like traffic controllers ensuring that our strategic agenda receives the priority it deserves.

Covey's 4 QuadrantsYou may know of Stephen Covey’s research where Baldridge Award winning organizations spent 80% of their time on Important work whereas other lower performing organizations spent 80% of their time on Urgent work. The difference between the two was that the top performers spent 55% of their time on Important Non-Urgent work, in the Zone, whereas other organizations spent 55% of their time on Urgent Non-Important work. The first group was proactive whereas the second group were chasing their tails.

When we proactively devote specific time to strategic leadership, we begin to operate as strategic leaders. I suggest the following:

  • A 90-minute Team Meeting each week or a double each fortnight, ideally on Tuesday mornings
  • The Team Meetings follow a cycle of Strategic, Operations, Culture, Operations on a weekly basis or Strategic/Culture and Operations on a fortnightly basis
  • A 90-minute 121 Meeting with each Team Member every fortnight on a rotating basis on Monday and Tuesday afternoons.

Most Executives simply run Operations Meetings with a list of items to go through. This approach is neither strategic nor empowering. Some Executives run Strategic Meetings to review team performance against outcome targets and revise their strategic initiatives to ensure that desired outcomes are achieved. These are essential to create an achievement orientation.

It is relatively rare for Executives to run Culture Meetings yet these meetings focused on Values, Leadership Development, Team Dynamics and People Engagement are essential to consciously shift the culture of an organization. Rather than leadership development being an overlay on daily operations, it becomes part of the operating fabric in the organization to generate evolution.


The Problems that Keep Us On The Treadmill

leverageThe first problem is that we try to do as much as possible each day and have deluded ourselves into thinking that being busy makes us productive and accomplished.

The second problem is that there is no pattern in our activities, each day is different and therefore we need to use our conscious energy to navigate our day as we do when we drive to an unfamiliar destination. This is a waste of conscious creative energy.

The third problem is that we do not devote consistent attention to our strategic agenda, the culture in our organization, and the progress and wellbeing of our individual team members. These are all Important Non-Urgent activities that make the difference between being a high performing organization and ordinary.


Summary of Actions to Take to Get Off the Treadmill

To ignite the quantum shift to become an inspiring strategic leader

  1. Set up your weekly schedule in 90 minute/30 minute sections with each section starting at the same time each day e.g. 9am, 11am, 2pm and 4pm.
  2. Designate one meeting each week or two each fortnight to Team Meetings following the cycle of Strategic, Operations, Culture and Operations or Strategic/Culture and Operations.
  3. Designate one meeting each fortnight for 121 Meetings with your Team Members rotating them through Monday and Tuesday afternoons.
  4. Set these meetings up 18 months ahead and extend the schedule every 6 months. Do not adjust your set!


uncertain futureThese four steps will enable you to double your productivity and unleash your creativity. They ensure a shared focus for the team near the beginning of each week and free you to focus on priority projects and other stakeholders for the rest of the week. They will lift your focus from operations management to strategic leadership.

More next time on how to design and lead open structured meeting agendas with your team and your individual team members. Open structured meeting agendas in contrast to a list of items to go through, will empower your people and lift their accountability. This can have the effect of lifting People Engagement by as much as 30% within 6 months and lead to significantly Higher Performance.

Antoinette Braks

Executive Coach in Strategic and Holistic Leadership for Senior Executives and Facilitator of Corporate Leadership Programs

I hope you enjoyed this post. I enable my clients to make the quantum shift from business operations management to inspiring strategic leadership so they can bring their Vision, Values and Voice to life.

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Published by Antoinette Braks

Antoinette Braks leads the design and delivery of SHIFT Leadership Development Individual and Group Coaching Programs for Senior Executives and High Potential Leaders to enable them to join the shift from being high performing achievers to becoming inspiring strategic leaders at divisional, regional and C-suite levels.

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