Every day, it seems, we’re forced to make a choice: Will we be the tortoise or the hare? An idealistic young bootstrapper might opt for the former. Slow and steady wins the race, right? Sure, until an investor comes along to remind her that the hare didn’t lose because he was fast; he lost because he was foolish. Today’s marketplace isn’t interested in slow, deliberate action. Leadership at the speed of modern life demands urgency. The early bird gets the worm, and the first to market—whether in smartphones or submarines—wins the prize.
But what happens when we mistake a “burning desire” for an emotional dumpster fire? As John Kotter (A Sense of Urgency) argues, leaders often confuse urgency with high-functioning anxiety. They try to fight back complacency by injecting a frenzy of activity into their organizations. Driven more by fear than by intentionality, leaders ramp up the pace, thinking the best way to maximize output is to crank the corporate machine up to eleven. As a result, “[The leader’s] employees scramble: sprinting, meeting, task-forcing, emailing—all of which create a howling wind of activity. But that’s all it is, a howling wind or, worse yet, a tornado that destroys much and builds nothing.”
One of the best ways I’ve found to protect myself from fear-driven frenzy is the simple discipline of journaling. There is no right or wrong way to journal. Some find it helpful to review today; others find it more helpful to preview tomorrow. I try to adopt both approaches in my practice, often recording a Psalm in my journal and adapting it into a prayer of reflection, anticipation, correction, and supplication. That simple act of writing and praying slows me down enough to flip off the autopilot and reengage my heart in the moment. When my time-anxiety tries to take over, a simple pen and paper are usually all I need to pause, reflect, and immerse myself in the present without stirring up an unnecessary whirlwind of unproductive busyness.
Slow It All Down Then?
Not so fast. Not all urgency is false urgency. Speed driven by mission and conviction is good, especially if it’s marked by competence. In their book Speed, John Zenger and Joseph Folkman make the case for fast, competent leadership. Based on their research, Zenger and Folkman found that leaders who execute competently only have a 3 percent probability of becoming “extraordinary.” But if they’re both right and fast, that probability jumps to 96 percent. Here’s where this really matters: the top 25 percent of leaders—in terms of speed—are twice as effective as their counterparts. Moreover, they increase the percentage of highly committed employees by 50 percent. A literal change of pace, as long as it’s driven by urgency instead of anxiety and punctuated by competent execution, might just be the thing leaders need to engage a stagnant workforce.
Still, while it may be true that employees want genuinely fast leaders, that’s not all they want. When Harvard Business Review surveyed nearly 20,000 workers, they learned that people perform at their highest level when four basic needs are met: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. In other words, engagement and retention require more than fast leadership; they need fast human leadership. As I’ve witnessed firsthand, though, leaders tend to put the emphasis on speed over human need.
So Which Is Better? Fast or Slow?
The final answer is a big, fat “it depends.” A wide range of factors affects your pace as a leader: personal health, institutional harmony, life cycle, and market factors, among others . . . [It] ultimately depends on how you “understand the times” and react to the reality in and around you and your organization. In sum, your pace will be determined by your presence.
To respond to the moment, you need to be in the moment. If you only know how to operate at one speed, it’s likely because you’ve flown too far from reality to realize just what the present demands of you.
I’ve had to learn that lesson. You could say I’m blessed with what leadership experts like to call “a constellation of mentors.” Godly advisors, coaches, mentors, and counselors have pushed, challenged, and stretched me to do more than I ever thought was possible. When Lyle Wells at the Flippen Group called me out on a blind spot in my leadership, I listened. Lyle was responding to what he’d observed in my leadership and on a 360 assessment. Top-flight leaders generally share a common bent toward high urgency and intensity. Their leadership engines run hotter than most, and mine was no exception . . . [This] is typically an asset for leaders, but as it is with most things, our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses. I had allowed my intensity to run over the more laid-back members on my team. Paradoxically, I needed to let off the gas if I wanted the team as a whole to pick up speed.
As authors Michael Breus (The Power of When) and Daniel Pink (When) show us, the trick to making the best use of our time is to understand our natural rhythm. Timing your leadership activity requires presence in your own body—knowing not only who you are but when you are. Do you do your best work late at night? Are you an insufferable monster just after lunch? Is an early afternoon nap your saving grace? It’s time we start paying attention to questions like these and allowing their answers to positively shape the way we structure our days. This may seem minor, but these are the low-level adjustments that will inevitably pay off in the long run. By dialing in our daily rhythm—that is, our embodied timefulness—and expanding that sense of awareness out to the organizational level, we’ll train ourselves to become the kind of leaders who instinctively take the right action at the right time.
— Adapted from How to Be Present in an Absent World: A Leader’s Guide to Showing Up, Paying Attention, and Becoming Fully Human by Daniel Montgomery, with Dr. Eboni Webb and Kenny Silva.
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