Why Leaders Should Be The Best At Slowing To A Stop and how YOU can

Reading for Leading works for me every Sunday, and hopefully for you on many Mondays (or whenever) because it causes me (and you?) to STOP.

One of the major images we have of leaders is that they well, LEAD. Literally, they are at the front. Or, they’re in the back, yelling, “You, go there. You, go there.” We see them in action. Speaking. Moving people. Moving themselves.

But here’s the danger: The most basic instinct of humans and human organizations is to survive by doing what they’ve done. Today’s threat looks just like last week’s, and what you did worked (more or less) last week. Forget that it’s a different threat this time. We are “cognitive misers,” which means we create shortcuts and habits. I teach in ways I NEVER would if I took my time and thought about where I wanted to get and what was happening right now with this class.  How often have I given speeches that did not reflect my best, cuz I couldn’t get myself to slow down and decide what was really essential.  Instead, as my friend Dave Katz would tease me, I’d “try to put 10 pounds of you-know-what in a 5-pound bag!”  Messy!  Have you ever taken the same route home cuz you’re on autopilot — even though you left work intending to head to your kids’ game or to the airport to pick up a relative? It’s both a jolting experience and a powerful metaphor.

With the pace of things today, people are more hasty than ever. And leaders can feel the pace and fuel the haste the most, generating more pressure for those around them. Last week I saw the composite scores of an incoming class of executives at our business school. Their teams rated their leadership styles, and the two most frequent styles were “coercive” and “pacesetting.”  These two styles are proven to be the very worst styles when it comes to creating innovative and effective workplace climate, according to Harvard’s Daniel Goleman. Pace and push! Not slow or even stop.

A leader (whether an authority figure or anyone committed to the organization’s very best) should be asking two questions, all the time: Where are we really trying to go?” And, “What’s going on right now?” Haste kills off both questions. We forget to ask what’s most important or to spend enough time on what’s really happening today.

So, I offer two recommendations: (1) Spend a whole day being alert enough to ask yourself and your teams those two questions, deliberately! Whether it’s about budgets, child-rearing, a fight with your spouse, or a quarterly plan. Force yourself to slow down, or stop entirely to get to the basics . . . and save yourself so much time repairing later. (2) Practice meditation! After fifteen years of (nearly) religious daily practice, I would say meditation is the most powerful practice to generate PRESENCE. Even 10 minutes a morning spent being so present you can note when an out-breath switches to an in-breath and an in-breath becomes an out-breath, will build your capacity to stop — even in the middle of a hectic day. And stopping lets you regularly ask: Where do I/we really want to go? And: What’s happening right now? (Here’s an excellent guided 10-minute morning meditation; whether you’ve never meditated or need a restart, I think you’ll like this.)

Leaders DON’T go off willy-nilly, no matter how good it feels to be in action. They are experts who stop and ask those two key questions to

Lead with their best self.

  • What he said… no? The best use of a “Stop” is to see if it should lead to an “End.”

    In William Bridges’ book on Transitions he says that we’ve got it backwards. We think that our personal and organizational stories unfold through beginnings, middles, and then endings. Nope. He says it’s much more accurate and helpful to see our personal and organizational lives unfolding with endings, then middles (he calls them the neutral zone), and then beginnings.

  • I believe it is the great filmmaker and collaborator Robert Zemeckis who often employs the perfect dovetail to this when working with actors and crew. It begins with, “Here is what I know,” followed by, “Here is what I don’t know,” thus admitting the limitations of (even great) leadership while simultaneously initiating a collaborative process.

  • I heard a practical example from a manufacturing company, they called the experience counterintuitive. The company makes parts and assembles them into products. Sometimes there is a problem and part of the process is shut down while repaired. The shut down isn’t for very long.

    It didn’t make sense to the company to pay the workers for not working, and the workers ahead of the temporary problem had enough to keep working.

    The workers behind the problem kept working too, making parts, but not for long, pretty soon, they are going all over the plant finding storage spaces for the parts they made that need the next step. Then when the temporary problem is solved, they go all over the plant again to retrieve the parts they tucked away, so the time was not very productive for the company.

    They learned it was better to do something else, take a break, do some team work, brain storm the problem or maintenance, anything but make some parts and spend the rest of the time moving them around, to store and then retrieve.

    This seems to be a practical example of, Where are we trying to go? and What is going on right now? point of the article.

    • Mike,
      What a GREAT example of our natural tendency to “keep doing what we’re doing,” rather than stepping back, stopping, and asking some reasonable questions.

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