More than a mere tool for scheduling the hours of the day, effective time management is an essential skill for leadership, says retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik. Without it, leaders are rudderless, captive to the urgencies of the moment, always reacting to the most recent crisis and the demands of others.

“At the executive level, time is your most important asset,” said Dubik, now a consultant for and board member of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. “Everybody wants a piece of your time.”

As he rose to the top levels of Army leadership in a 40-year career, Dubik found it increasingly difficult to squeeze into a day everything that he needed to do, personally and professionally. About 10 years ago, he customized his own approach to time management, drawing upon two popular time-management books.

Without it, he would have been “like every other senior executive who is captured by the immediate and the urgent and not necessarily the important.”

Effective time management constantly forces leaders to make that distinction, freeing them up to focus on the important while handing off the urgent to others, Dubik said. It thus becomes a powerful tool for developing the leadership of subordinates.

“Using this kind of approach increases your subordinates’ creativity and increases the time that I had to do the things that I had to do, like think of the direction my organization is going to go rather than be caught up with the day-to-day inbox,” he said.

In 2007, in his final command before retirement, Dubik put his time-management approach to the test when he was sent to Iraq to oversee the training of Iraqi security forces. It was a year of 16-hour workdays filled with meetings and battlefield visits with a wide range of officials from 15 nations.

Dubik talked with Faith & Leadership about time management and leadership. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: You contend that effective time management is an essential trait of leadership. How so?

At the executive level, time is your most important asset. Everybody wants a piece of your time. Everybody needs to go see the general. Everybody that you have on your staff wants to add more things to your schedule than you have time to do, and so the issue for me became, “How do I approach the use of my time?” Not just for efficiency and effectiveness on the job but for my personal life. I have a wife. I love her. I have a family. I love them. I want to spend enough time to keep myself healthy, so physical exercise is important, and I pray and meditate every day to maintain my spiritual balance.

“How do you get all of that into a day?” was the problem that I asked or the question that I asked myself. So I started to develop my own approach, and I used two books to guide me. One is “First Things First” by Stephen Covey, and the other is “The Power of Full Engagement” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. While I couldn’t use their approaches perfectly, they guided me through a series of questions that ultimately led to my approach.

Q: So what’s your approach?

First, I ask myself, “What’s important to me as a person?” Then, “What do I have to contribute to my organization that no one else can?” And then, “What does the organization expect of me in my office?” Not me personally but the person in my office -- and that’s from the perspectives of my staff, my senior officers and my subordinate commanders. What do they expect from me?

Once I answer those questions, I arrange the answers chronologically. What do I have to do every day? What do I have to do every week? What do I have to do at least once a month, once a quarter, semiannually and annually?

This generally involves a discussion with my staff and subordinate commanders. I try to get a rhythm such that they feel confident that they will see me at some interval that meets their needs. Maybe that’s once a week or once a month or once a quarter. But whatever the interval, it’s pretty much guaranteed that they’ll have time with me to relate what they think is important, to ask me questions, and for me to issue whatever guidance they expect. That way, between those meetings, they’re free to use their initiative and creativity and act and decide consistent with the guidance that I’ve given them.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider:

  • Who are the people in your organization who normally “eat up your time”? How can you involve them in establishing and monitoring priorities? What do they need from you? Guidance? Feedback? What do you need from them?
  • Recall the last crisis or other major problem that required your attention. Could it have been handled by others? What decisions are you making now that others could make?
  • Where do you need to “be”? What practices of “presence” have you built into your calendar?
  • How and when do you evaluate the use of your time? How is a calendar-review system similar to a budget-review system?

Q: Once you get everything on your calendar, what happens next?

Once a week, I have a calendar meeting with a pretty inclusive group. First, my wife attends, because what I do affects her, and it’s very important to get her perspective, because in the military -- and probably many other professions -- the spouse inherits a role and should therefore be part of the time meeting. I also have my aide who keeps my calendar, my scheduling secretary, my travel secretary, my protocol officer, my cook -- because we’ll have social events at the home that the cook needs to understand -- the chief of staff and my media person. They’re the normal set that tries to eat up my time, so I give them a voice in the weekly meetings. We go through what is going to happen next week hour by hour and then, in a less structured way, two weeks following.

At the end of the quarter, my chief of staff gives me a grade. He labels green everything that I did on time, yellow what was done on time but by someone else because I had something else to do, and red if it didn’t occur. It creates a visual score card of whether or not you’re using your time as you planned. It’s never perfect, but it shows you how you used your most important asset.

You can say to yourself, “Look, I’m meeting with this subordinate way too often. Something is going on.” Or, “I haven’t been to this meeting with the superintendents of the schools that surround my post for the last six months. This is not good.” That way you can guide the next quarter with maybe a better balance than the last.

These are very important ways to look at your most important asset, and what I have found in my 10-plus years as an executive, using this kind of approach increases your subordinates’ creativity and increases the time that I had to do the things that I had to do, like think of the direction my organization is going to go rather than be caught up with the day-to-day inbox, to make sure that I have spent the time developing my subordinates that I wanted to spend.

So without this approach, I would have been, in my view, like every other senior executive who is captured by the immediate and the urgent and not necessarily the important.

Q: As leaders make that distinction between the urgent and the important, you caution them to remember that the important includes more than work-related tasks. Tell us about that.

My wife and I, for example, like to have a date every week. That’s not a task, but it’s certainly very important. I like to start every day with an hour of prayer and meditation. That’s not a task. It’s certainly very important. So there are very important things that can fall by the wayside if you don’t attend to them with at least the same urgency as you do your tasks.

This is your life. It’s not a rehearsal for what’s going to happen afterwards. This is it. Many important things happen only once. Your daughter or son graduates from high school once -- we hope, anyway. You go to your first communion once. You’re confirmed once. These things don’t happen again. If you miss them, you miss them. So the way you structure your life is part of executive leadership. It’s part of your development even before you’re an executive leader. If you don’t take time for the important things in your life, you risk being a one-dimensional person, and a one-dimensional person doesn’t fare well in life.

Senior executives are generally Type A people. They want to get a lot done, but you can’t unless you attend to the base, the core, of what makes you a person -- your relationship with your God and your relationships with your spouse and your family, developing yourself. This is the foundation of everything you can give someone else. Too often we look at what we give someone else and don’t leave enough time to build that foundation. My time-management system allows me to do that.

Q: Even in the leader’s professional role, not everything important looks like a task. You make the point that simply being present is a key act of leadership.

Yes. In Iraq, for example, at least once a week I would spend three hours in the battle space with people who were fighting or leading. I didn’t set any specific tasks except to be there with them to share the danger and the activities they were doing. I went there really to be there. That’s an example of presence, and in our business -- and I suspect many other professions as well -- being there counts. It counts a lot -- to see the conditions under which your subordinates have to succeed, to see how your orders are translated into actual operations on the ground.

It’s important to get that firsthand feedback and not be so detached that all you do is make judgments based on reports, which are always late, only half-wrong and therefore half-right, and someone else’s filters of how events occur. An executive might be distant in terms of layers in an organization, but you can’t be distant in the feel of the organization.

Q: So you built those into your calendar?

It was a three-hour block that we scheduled every week, with the location and activities varying. For security reasons, people didn’t know where I was going until the last minute. Preplanned visits to subordinates generally turn into dogs and ponies trotted out for you to see. Unplanned visits give you a real sense of what the organization is.

But it takes some nerve to do that, because you have to be able to remember when you were a subordinate. Every day is not a perfect day. Conditions are sometimes chaotic, and as a senior leader, you have to expect that there’s going to be a certain degree of -- let’s call it slop. The visit is not going to go exactly as planned, but you’ll see reality, and that’s the issue.

Q: I understand why you’d want to see reality, but how do you pull off a surprise visit without it feeling punitive?

You’re going to see some things that are wrong. You’re going to see lots of things as they are. That’s why you want to go. When you see things that are wrong, these are leader-development opportunities. They’re not punitive opportunities. So you find out what’s going wrong. You don’t correct it yourself. You don’t make a big deal about how wrong this is. You grab the person who is responsible and you say, “This is not right. How did you end up in this position? What decision did you make to lead yourself to this position?”

Sometimes you’ll find out that the subordinate really had a different vision and that the facts on the ground changed in ways he couldn’t have anticipated. If there’s a learning opportunity, you point out some options and some things that are not options, and then you let the subordinate change it.

This is a way to use every opportunity to develop subordinates. In the military, you don’t get people laterally [from the outside] into the chain of command. They all rise from within, so part of your job as a senior leader in everything you do is identify those people who have potential and help develop subordinates so that they can rise to their level of capability.

Q: Give us an idea of how you managed your time in Iraq. What was your typical day like?

I started my day with one hour of prayer, and it was early. I don’t wish an Iraq experience on anybody for time management, but at 6:30 a.m. I had to be at my desk reviewing all the emails and cables, and at 7 in an update with General Petraeus and the ambassador, and then off to the races until 10 or 11 at night, when I returned to my room. In that time, I would schedule two hours of physical training as much for stress release as anything else.

Battlefield circulation would occur during that time, and meetings with both Iraqis and Americans and other nationalities. I had adjutants from 15 nations who worked for me. The set of people with whom I worked was pretty broad, so we used that daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly calendar approach I described.

Again, if you don’t have a disciplined approach to touch all those you have to touch at the frequency that is necessary, then you are more rudderless, reacting to the latest person to need you. That’s always going to happen some, but if you can minimize it, you’re much better off.

Q: I can only imagine all the urgencies, all the demands for your attention that you experienced in Iraq. How did you even begin to distinguish the urgent from the important?

Well, one of the meetings that we had in Iraq was a two-and-a-half-hour weekly meeting with my 13 subordinate generals and senior executives. The reason it was so long is that everybody reviewed what they were doing as part of the effort to develop the Iraqi security forces. That way, everybody learned what each other was doing. We all had a sense of the overall direction of the corporate body that I commanded. I would react to what was being said and issue guidance to people who asked.

The meeting was available to everyone in the organization. It was shown live and videotaped and placed on the Web, so that people throughout the organization could listen in. They could go to the Web and read it. It created a sense of alignment in the organization, because everyone who wanted to, regardless of rank and position, could listen in.

How this helped with the urgent was this: If an urgent problem came up to me, I could say to myself, “Hey, let General X handle that,” because I was confident that General X understood my overall intent. I was confident that in nine out of 10 cases he would make as good a decision if not better than me. I would tell my chief, “Call up General X, tell him this decision is his or hers, and let me know what he did with it.” That allowed me to let some of the urgent go to other people, because I knew they could handle it.

Remember when I started, I asked, “What could I contribute to this organization? What does the organization expect of me?” Not every decision is something the organization expects me to make. I can pass many of them off. What I’ve found, at least in my profession, is the insecurity of the senior executive results in the aggregation of decisions that really can be disaggregated to subordinates.

Our weekly meeting gave us confidence in each other. Sometimes we argued among ourselves, but most of the time we were confident that we would execute our decisions within the overall intent and direction of the organization.

Q: Still, even in that framework it must be difficult to distinguish “urgent” from “important.” Doesn’t every important issue start off as something urgent?

Usually by the time a problem got to me, there were lots of other people trying to solve it. So, often the urgent became important for me. There’s no doubt about that. But it wasn’t always the case. In fact, if you create this kind of culture in your organization, what might flow up in an overly centralized organization never does flow up.

I have no idea how many problems I didn’t have to deal with because of the structure that we set up. I have no way to know, but my guess is that many problems were solved by other people. When my subordinates brought a problem to me, it wasn’t unusual for them to hear, “Hey, that’s your problem. Just figure it out and let me know how it went. If you really want me to answer that question, if you really want me to solve that problem, then the question I’m going to ask is, ‘Why do I need you?’ You were selected to solve these kinds of problems. So have a good time, and let me know how it went.”

It takes a lot of confidence to take that kind of approach. Not confidence in me personally, but confidence among a set of people. That confidence is built by the way you lead your organization. Those meetings aren’t just about time management but also about confidence building.