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.