Seven Marks of a Bottleneck Leader

Bottleneck Traffic SignWhat’s a “bottleneck”? Literally, it’s the “neck or mouth of a bottle,” the place where the bottle grows most narrow. Metaphorically, it pictures “a point of congestion or blockage” or “a situation that causes delay in a process or system.” ¹

Leaders should increase the quality, efficiency, and productivity of their teams, but there are many ways for leaders to become bottleneck leaders — someone who slows the process and gums up the system rather than keeping the team firing on all cylinders and moving forward efficiently. As an analytical type working in higher education the past thirteen years, I’ve been a bottleneck leader myself on many occasions and have seen bottleneck tendencies in other leaders as well.

What are some of the easiest ways to become bottleneck leaders?

1. Indecision. Indecision is one of the easiest ways to become a bottleneck leader. Indecisive types tend to glorify our indecision — we’re just trying to gather all the evidence, consider all the angles, and make the unmistakably right decision. But a good decision that keeps the team moving is better than a great decision made too late. Indecision keeps colleagues, teammates, and institutions idling instead of accelerating, and it’s one of the most obvious characteristics of a bottleneck leader.

2. Analysis. Analysis is a wonderful servant but a terrible master. Analyzing data, proposals, and situations serves a team well, as long as the analytical process doesn’t become an end in itself. Analyzing always feels safer than acting because there’s no risk in analysis. But analysis without decision is just wasted time. Leaders who can’t stop analyzing create bottlenecks for their teams. Therefore, blessed is the leader who blends detailed analysis with decisive action.

3. Overbusyness. When you’re too busy to talk with, meet with, and work with the people you’re called to lead, you’ll soon become a bottleneck leader. Projects will move forward in fits and starts, like a teenager learning to drive a stick shift, because the person who’s supposed to provide the overall guidance, direction, and pace is rarely available to move things forward. Yes, we want to delegate cleanly and efficiently so that our teams can move forward without us, but leaders still must be consistently available for those key questions, mid-flight adjustments, and motivational pushes that keep teams moving forward with direction, confidence, and enthusiasm.

4. Micromanaging. The opposite of never being around is being around too much. When you micromanage those around you, people develop the unhealthy need for over-permission. Individuals and teams are incessantly waiting for explicit approvals and affirmations for decisions that should be theirs to make. Micromanaging people instead of leading people creates a bottleneck leader. Far less gets done than could get done because people are not trusted and given the freedom to do their jobs.

5. Disorganization. Personal disorganization produces professional disorganization, and disorganization creates friction in the team’s processes. You don’t have to be a control freak or a world-class systems builder, but if you want to lead effectively, you do need to create and maintain well-functioning habits of personal and professional organization.

6. Bureaucracy. Bureaucratic red tape stifles creative genius and entrepreneurial spirit, along with plain old daily progress. When you have cheetahs on your team, you have to let them run. When you have eagles on your team, you have to let them fly. When you have lions on your team, you have to let them roar. Even when you have plodders on your team, you have to let them plod without constantly hitting the pause button of bureaucracy. Yes, you have to define roles and expectations, provide guidelines and expectations, and have clear metrics and accountability. But needless bureaucratic hoops kill the advancement that keeps people doing fresh things and wanting to come to work each day.

7. Conflict. Some leaders ignite more relational conflict than they extinguish, or allow more interpersonal tension than they resolve. These leaders create a unique kind of bottleneck — the bottleneck of drama. When employees spend a good percentage of each day thinking about, worrying about, and gossiping about the boss or a colleague or the team dynamic, you’ve got a good old-fashioned bottleneck of drama. Time spent worrying about the politics and pressures of the workplace is time wasted. Teams that are relationally in-sync usually work better (and work happier) than those characterized by conflict and drama. And it’s the leader’s job to cultivate a working environment that’s harmonious, team-oriented, and mature enough to work through relational and professional problems.

I work with fantastically gifted people who are exemplary, motivated, and diligent, and I work for an institution with an unparalleled mission. The last thing I want to do is to be a bottleneck leader who slows my team, hinders my colleagues, and stunts our growth. Because when the team is focused, empowered, and unified, there’s no measure to the good that can get done.


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