05/18/2012 06:07 pm ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

From Home Runs to Bunts: The Real Reason Managers Get Nothing Done

Catch most managers in a moment of honesty, and they'll admit they feel less effective than they'd expected to be. The reason, they'll say, is that they're too busy to do the big things they'd hoped to do.

They're kidding themselves and you. Fear is the real reason. Timidity leads them to take their eyes off the larger prizes that once defined success for them; so they rationalize that success consists of small prizes and assorted trinkets.

"I spent today worrying about menus for the upcoming conference," one senior business executive told me a few months ago. "Early in my career, I'd sit around with colleagues and we'd blow smoke about how much we'd be able to get done if only we were put in charge of things. Now I'm in charge of things, and all I seem to be doing is worrying about the damned menu."

I told him there's a perfectly understandable explanation: From a safe distance, senior management looks easy. It seems obvious what changes are necessary, and it seems maddening to see senior managers fail to make those changes.

But when you're actually thrown into that leadership position yourself, things look entirely different. You realize you're playing on a vast and complicated chessboard, and certain "obvious" moves are blocked by pawns and knights and bishops that you'd never noticed before. You find that certain changes will infuriate key stakeholders or investors. You begin to appreciate why the last person didn't solve the problems that you thought would be a cinch.

And then, you begin to worry about the menu for the big conference.

After all, the menu is something you can control, and since you're someone who likes to lead, you need control, you feed off of a feeling of control. You weren't able to get the budget you wanted for the conference, you couldn't line up the big keynote speaker that would've gotten your organization national attention, and you can't get anyone on your team even to agree on what the main theme should be for the conference.

But you can control the menu. And so you do. And adjusting menus gradually becomes your specialty. You begin to call strategy meetings to decide whether the boardroom should be painted a different color. Instead of continuing on track with moving your organization to the next level, you begin fussing at the margins.

It's like going from being the baseball player who used to swing for the fences to someone who worries mainly about striking out. It's like the quarterback who once tried to light up the scoreboard, but now worries mainly about limiting turnovers while hoping that the defense and special teams can win the game.

To be sure, being an effective manager involves growing up and shedding some naive views about what kinds of bold change are possible in messy human organizations. But before you know it, a well-meaning and talented person can become that senior manager -- that ineffective one whom junior employees joke about, the one that they think they could easily outperform if given the chance. And so the cycle goes.

How do you avoid becoming the kind of manager that you once made fun of?

Ask yourself a few questions: Do I say "it can't be done" more frequently? Have I become too "reasonable" about goals for myself or my organization? And does my organization expect merely reasonable progress from me? Great leaders (Steve Jobs remains the modern exemplar) have unreasonable expectations of themselves and others. No organization becomes great by aspiring to small, incremental forms of progress.

If you're no longer interested in being great because you've truly decided that it's impossible within current market conditions, that's fine -- but at least admit it to yourself and to others. And accept that you're a conventional line manager, not a true leader. Otherwise, consider if you're willing to get breathlessly excited again about mountaintop goals for yourself and for your organization or cause.

The odd reality is that most of your time as a manager won't involve charging to the mountaintop. Most of it will involve trivia and minutiae; but keeping the right focus on mountaintop goals make the lesser stuff in a tolerable and meaningful perspective.

What's the right balance between minutiae and adventure for a leader? One mentor of mine, Steve Sample, a highly respected university administrator and the author of The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership, came up with what he called a 70/30 rule. He held that top managers must accept that 70 percent of their time will be eaten up by trivia -- the handholding of angry customers, the tedious responses to daily mini-crises, and so on. But they also must jealously protect that 30 percent of their time that's devoted to vision, to considering bold new ventures, to taking steps of risk.

As Sample noted, that 30 percent can easily decrease to 20 percent, or 15 percent, or 5 percent. The leader finally exits with the organization largely in the same place it was before.

But let's be clear: It's not "busyness" that gets in the way of doing great business. It's fear -- the terror of tackling formidable and seemingly intractable goals, once they're right in front of us. Vince Lombardi said that fatigue makes cowards of us all. More likely, it's a vicious circle: Timidity allows us to easily become fatigued. At that point, worrying about the event menu seems to be all we can do.

Yet somewhere beyond the naive idealism that we brought into our job and the reality that hammered us once we took it is a place where we can make a meaningful, long-term difference, in spite of the difficulty of it all.