On a commute to work this past winter I decided to take the longer, scenic route through the countryside.
It was thirty degrees and the roads were a little wet – the perfect conditions for black ice. I proceeded with caution. A couple miles into my ride, a large black pickup pulled up behind me and began riding my bumper fairly closely. I found this outside influence challenging me to change my cautious pattern and contemplate speeding up. This metaphor serves as one of the leadership dilemmas I often encounter.
Today’s business environment is complex, filled with much ambiguity and ever-increasing expectations. Many articles on leadership and entrepreneurship refer to an action-oriented attribute that instills confidence. I certainly concur that decisiveness and action are hallmark habits of effective leadership. However, I want to discuss the power of patience. Archbishop Fulton Sheen is quoted as having said “Patience is power. Patience is not an absence of action; rather it is ‘timing.’ It waits on the right time to act, for the right principles and in the right way.”
One of the challenges I often face is the choice between action and patience. I sometimes use the metaphor “stepping on the gas” or “tapping the brakes” to describe this predicament. I’m certain I’ve acted when I should have waited, and I’ve also waited when I should have acted during the course of my career. But with an inherent nature for action and an increasingly complex business environment demanding speed, when are the times I should exercise the power of patience? I’d like to suggest three such situations:
Perhaps the most rewarding function of leadership is providing an opportunity for individuals on the team to grow. Despite my desire for instant results and for someone to “get it” as quickly as I think someone should, true learning and growth require an investment in time. By letting an individual struggle with an issue and not simply delivering the answer, we provide an environment for personal growth.
Patience, judgment and coaching are critical in allowing someone to struggle, to stretch, to transform and to grow. I am certain there are times when my lack of patience meant that I prematurely injected myself into a situation and frustrated my team and delayed growth. I am equally certain there were times where my patience allowed my team or an individual to wallow in a problem far too long. When you view a situation through a lens of what it means for the personal growth of the individual, however, I believe there are many more opportunities for patience than we often exercise.
Periods of Strategic Uncertainty
I would describe these situations as periods of high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty – when there are several possible paths – requiring investigation of multiple options to a strategic issue. As a result, solutions should not necessarily be imposed, but should emerge from experiments and the analysis of results and changing circumstances.
In these situations, I prefer to initiate activities for the purpose of learning first and then responding. Patience is necessary to learn; to separate fact from erroneous interpretation. Persistence is often required to achieve the true result, often in the face of outside influences and naysayers. It is during these types of scenarios that I try to be more patient, waiting for the path forward to truly emerge.
But even here I have to caution against being too patient or too deliberate. These situations can result in “analysis paralysis” – an inability to reach agreement or a conclusion because the results are ambiguous. Many experiments can provide feedback quickly without too much investment of time or money.
When Accuracy Is More Important Than Speed
One of the hallmarks of good customer service is speed. The faster the result is achieved, many times, the better the experience. However, there are times where precision and accuracy weigh more than speed in determining a satisfied outcome. I would prefer the airline mechanic to be accurate rather than fast when I am sitting on a plane being delayed for a “mechanical issue!” I frequently find myself double- and triple-checking calculations, presentations or e-mail responses. I also often like to draft a document and then sleep on it (including this blog post) to ensure I’ve achieved the correct tone and context.
Back to my commute that winter’s day. I chose to exercise patience and continued to proceed cautiously on those wet roads. I was not going to let some outside influence, which had nothing to do with my perception of the safety of the road, conditions impact my plan.
A couple of miles later the black pickup turned onto another road and sped off. I got to work safely later that morning.