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What Do Leaders Do All Day?

One of our On Leadership panelists who studies and teaches leadership mentioned to me recently that, in his experience, people have an enduring curiosity about what CEOs presidents and other leaders actually do all day. Indeed, when I see a picture of the Oval Office I always wonder how the president gets any work done without a computer on his desk.

Whether this curiosity is about bringing the famous and powerful down to our level by imagining how they handle their e-mails or a desire to know what to expect if we ever become a leader ourselves, here are four ways to learn about the leader's daily grind.

1. A Fly on Obama's Wall

This week, Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow offered readers a detailed look at Obama's everyday life as a leader, explaining how White State staff, close aides and department heads map out the president's priorities before he even arrives at work. "His time is the most valuable commodity in the White House, and it's guarded like a precious jewel," writes Saslow. The president's scheduler, Alyssa Mastromonaco, told Saslow she organizes "desk time" for the president between his meetings, so he can make calls, study briefing documents or read letters from regular folks. Every morning Obama staffers select 10 letters from the estimated 40,000 that arrive at the White House each day -- a fact that makes you wonder how the letter-openers manage their own time.

2. The Twittering CEO

Of course Twitter, the online microblogging utility, gives average folks a whole new window into the lives of those run the world. Last fall, BusinessWeek created a "Twitter Rolodex" of corporate leaders who regularly post their whereabouts, thoughts and activities on Twitter. Disappointingly, nearly all the 18 executives profiles run tech-related companies, such as Digg's Kevin Rose, Technorati's David Sifry and, of course, Twitter's Jack Dorsey: These are the people we expect to Twitter. Perhaps the most interesting CEO Twitterer, then, is Michael Hyatt, president and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers. Hyatt's tweets give readers (or, in Twitter-speak, "followers") quick glimpses into his everyday life as an executive. At 7 AM this morning, for example, Hyatt wrote: "I'm up and at 'em, heading into the office early. Mornings are my favorite, most productive, time."

3. The Executive Morning

Yahoo! blogger and career coach Jim Citrin was also curious about how CEOs get their days started, and he informally polled 20 CEOs and top executives on their morning routines. He organizes the response into seven unsurprising categories ("exercise every morning," "make family time"), but the best parts of the article are the snap-shots he includes from individual executives, like Padmasree Warrior, then-chief technology officer for Motorola (and now CTO at Cisco), "who rises at 4:30 a.m., spends an hour on email, reads most of the news online, and then does an hour of either cardio or resistance training each morning," allowing her to get her son ready for school and dropped off before going to work at 8 or 8:30 am.

In case that makes you exhausted just reading about it, Citrin also includes some thoughts from Steve Murphy, CEO of publishing company Rodale, who told him: "A line in a William Blake poem inspired me to think differently about my day: 'Think in the morning, act in the noon, read in the evening, and sleep at night.' This has made a huge difference in my life. Now, I take out a yellow pad every morning and write my thoughts for the day, which allows me to be much more strategic and proactive than reactive."

4. An Academic Classic

Those who want a more analytical, research-based way of thinking about how leaders use their time can probably start with management professor Henry Mintzberg's 1973 classic, The Nature of Managerial Work (the original edition is still for sale, complete with snazzy, 70s-era jacket design). According to a 2003 journal article, Mintzberg's research -- in which he logged and analyzed the actions of managers through their day -- overturned then existing theories that management was all about commanding-and-controlling, because, as he discovered, managers and leaders spent time instead embodying interpersonal, informational, and decision-making roles.

If you're still curious about what professionals do all day, check out Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day? Even better, consider writing an updated version of that book, in which you explain to children not what the blacksmith, baker and farmer do (as Scarry did) but rather what the board chair, chief operations officer, or senior vice president do all day. It seems like most of us haven't yet figured it out.

By Andrea Useem  |  March 3, 2009; 12:36 PM ET  | Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Apparently, not much. It's unbelievable. Work out, think deep thoughts, call my broker? That's it?

Oh, yes, and collect unearned wealthy by the trillions, via tax break, structured options, ad nauseam.

Please. CEO. Crooks Engineering Options.

Thieves. Lazy, self-serving corporate thieves.


Posted by: gnpszul | March 9, 2009 7:56 AM

I'm in the same boat as the previous poster. I'm surrounded by "nestbuilders," people who make their work lives as comfortable as possible, wiggling out of anything that calls for more than a minimal effort. I lead because I must; my boss doesn't know enough about what I do to provide any leadership, and in my industry, stagnation leads to unemployment.

I would love to be at the level where I can think big, and have an army of people responsible for executing my enlightened vision. Right now, I'm low enough to have all the responsibility, take all the blame, and get none of the praise. How do I spend my day? Working my fingers to the bone.

Posted by: bhinmd | March 6, 2009 4:39 PM

As a leader where I work, it seems I spend most of my time taking ownership of issues/tasks/etc that others do not because they don't want to be held responsible or its too much of a pain/too complex to deal with.

No one cares about mission accomplishment anymore; just how to avoid being held accountable for tasks not getting completed on-time, properly, etc.

Posted by: AnonPoster | March 6, 2009 3:13 PM

I can tell you that in the military the higher up you get, the more meetings you go to. At this point in my career I spend 4-6 hours a day in meetings, 1-2 hours talking to subordinates, and the rest on email or doing admin work. When I was an executive officer I found that from the rank of Colonel on up their schedules get taken up quickly with meetings. After duty hours are devoted to admin work. The higher your rank the more of a slave to the schedule you become and the less "real" work you have to do.

Posted by: kilgore_nobiz | March 6, 2009 2:37 PM

If you are the mayor of Brownsville, TX, you spend your time rescuing sunbathing Great Danes from balconies.

Posted by: hlabadie | March 6, 2009 1:35 PM

I'm with wwwBarbaraFalconerNewhallcom. I do know what I do in a day, but I often don't have enough to actually be doing work all day. I'm not sure I would want that kind of job...it's nice to have regular mental breaks.

Posted by: akchild | March 6, 2009 1:05 PM

Not entirely related but I am trying to figure out what leadership was doing while our economy was being destroyed. I mean was Tim Geithner at his desk saying "Alan is really screwing up. How can I tell him? Or should I call Ben?". Or what was Barney Frank thinking when he said he saw no problems with Fannie and Freddie. More important why was Susan Troll at T. Rowe Price able to determine that their sub-prime mortgage securities were problematic in 2005 or 2006 so the company got rid of them. Was she the only one showing active leadership?

Posted by: hz9604 | March 6, 2009 11:12 AM

What I really need to know is -- what do I do all day?

The day is over, some stuff has gotten done, but I'm not always sure what. Maybe that's the difference between me and the CEO's who bring down the big bucks.

Posted by: wwwBarbaraFalconerNewhallcom | March 5, 2009 5:53 PM

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