Steering Clear of Leader’s Bottleneck Syndrome

As a leader, you end up involved in every tiny aspect of the business. You eventually end up in a leader's bottleneck. Here's how to avoid it.

ow do you protect your time and energy? How do you ensure you don’t inadvertently become a human bottleneck by taking on so many tasks that you run out of time to actually lead?

Leadership in an ideal world

Great leadership means taking the time to develop your team’s capabilities, helping them take the initiative by building their confidence so they can find solutions for themselves. Fail, and you can easily find yourself mired in Leaders Bottleneck Syndrome territory, where you’re the one stopping progress.

In an ideal world, you’ll focus on the things only you can achieve, the real leadership-level stuff. The remainder of the tasks that make up everyday working life – including dealing with other people’s issues or problems, many of which can seem pressing and urgent – should ideally fall to someone else. The thing is, some leaders find it tough to surrender control, especially when things aren’t going well.

Are you preventing progress?

A leadership role often involves stepping in at a crisis point and leading everyone out of the crisis safely, a hands-on aspect of your role that demands fast action. But if stepping in ends up becoming a pattern, something you keep on doing time and time again, it probably means your leadership style is more hands-on than it needs to be, too narrow in its style and approach: you’ve dug yourself into a hole.

If this sounds like you, you could be inadvertently de-skilling your people or even worse, fostering an attitude of learned helplessness. Eventually, a climate where everyone is afraid to make mistakes or admit to them, an attitude that stunts the possibility of learning and lowers people’s confidence rather than building it. Your people will be less inclined to push their thinking, come up with solutions or even ask new questions. Carry on, and you’ll soon hit the doldrums, a place where nobody’s going anywhere, and business starts to suffer. It can even start to eat away at your bottom line.

If you feel the need to micro-manage, checking every tiny detail, you’ll have progressively less time to tackle vital strategic work. You’ll become steadily less effective as a leader. You’ll have less head space for setting the business vision, driving direction or enabling product development, and no time for new initiatives. There will less time for your development too, and the range of your leadership expression will become even narrower as time passes. Take it to the max, and it can be severely career-limiting.

Who’s Got the Monkey?

Steering Clear of Leader’s Bottleneck Syndrome

One excellent Harvard Business Review article – Who’s Got the Monkey? By William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L Wass – is well worth reading. It describes the leadership bottleneck pitfall correctly, in an entertaining way that illustrates exactly how so much time can be taken up with responsibilities – AKA monkeys – that they hadn’t anticipated.

In this context, taking on another person’s tasks is taking on someone else’s ‘monkey’. Leaders can get overwhelmed by the sheer number of things they need to do when they take too many monkeys on their back. And taking ownership of a problem, accepting responsibility for it, is an inevitable consequence of adopting a monkey on your back, intentional or not

How to create a culture of astute monkey management

Strong leaders only take on the monkeys they agree to handle. They know how to spot monkeys coming their way, and they develop a culture of astute monkey management. So how do they do it?

The key is to establish clear guidelines about accepting and handling responsibilities. In other words, they empower and develop everyone’s capabilities to address their monkeys.

There are many ways, as a leader, to take on a monkey, and they all involve agreeing – whether it’s willingly or unwillingly – that you’re looking at a common problem, and assume responsibility for the next step in the chain of actions required to handle it.

When discussing a particular monkey with one of your people, you have to make it clear that the monkey in question belongs to the person holding it. Both parties have to agree on the actions the monkey holder will take, and the leader only accepts minimal involvement, for example lightly supervising the process, or checking the outcome.

As a great leader, it’s your goal to encouraging monkey carriers to take the initiative. There’s no need for them to wait for instructions or check with you at every stage. When you send someone away with nothing to do, you’ve managed to take yet another monkey onto your back, and they’re left monkey less – not a good place to be!

Investing in people saves leaders time in the long run

You might have the ability to carry out a task faster, more efficiently, more effectively than a member of your team. But good business is all about investing time and energy in people so that they have clarity and you get the time you need to do a brilliant job of actually leading – a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy


When you weigh up the long-term benefits, you soon realise that while it initially takes more time to bring others up to speed, in the long term, you gain time because your people are fully confident in taking the required initiative as well as skilled at resolving problems.

Sometimes the problem really is a joint problem. In this case, as the leader, you’ll need to lead the thinking process collaboratively and work to solve the issues within the group. It still boils down to who does what and when.

As with so much in life, knowledge is power and practice makes perfect. Get it right, and you’ll create more time for yourself as well as a more enjoyable, healthier and productive organisational culture.

Lift your leadership capabilities to the next level

If you want to lift your leadership capabilities and manage your time and energy more effectively, get in touch.