Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Leadership Irony: To Accomplish More, Do Less


Guest post from Sara Canaday:

As leaders, we are, by definition, doers. We finish. We deliver. We get results. And we love the feeling of accomplishment that comes with crossing things off our “to-do” lists. The tougher the task, the better we like it. We revel in being that person people bring the undoable to and then conquer.  That’s how we got here, right? We became the go-to resource for those around us, and it fueled our rise through the ranks. No whining. Just do it.

But what if our bias for action, our quest for pushing harder, won’t work anymore? What if incessant doing keeps us from greatness? Is that possible?

Here is a story that illustrates what I mean. A few years ago, I was asked to facilitate a leadership retreat for a tech company. On the agenda, was a business simulation that was akin to an outdoor scavenger hunt. The participants were divided into small groups and each team was asked to spend a few hours strategizing and developing a plan that would lead to the best and fastest way to find items and “collect” associated winnings.  Without going into detail, I can tell you that the group I was assigned to observe and coach post-simulation was convinced their airtight plan would net them the ultimate prize. They were going to stay together as a group and use their collective brain power to solve the clues.

That was their thinking anyway.

But a funny thing happened when the simulation started. This very deliberate and intelligent group of leaders almost immediately abandoned their well-thought-out plan and let their instincts kick in. Instead of sticking together and relying on their identified roles, several individuals strayed from the group and started to “hunt” on their own. The rest of the team followed suit and began to scatter frantically.   

When we debriefed later, the discussion was fascinating. Humans are all hard-wired for action, and these leaders started to realize the implications of that reality. They could all see that their competitive adrenaline rush and the time pressure ignited their natural bias for action. In the heat of the moment, they felt compelled—even obligated—to do something. To dive in and make it happen. Forget the strategy. Ditch the plan.   

Here’s the rub. As leaders, we are being asked to both think more and do more. We need better ideas and more strategies, and we also need to keep moving. That’s an impossible tension. We can’t endlessly do both things at the same time. 

So, what’s the answer? It might surprise you.

Modern leaders who are achieving phenomenal success have figured out the solution. Instead of making action the default for every challenge, these leaders are pairing that alternative with an opposite response. It’s not about replacing action, which we know is a necessary leadership ingredient. We still need to reach our goals, meet deadlines, and produce results. This is different.

They think of it as developing a companion habit that celebrates BEING rather than DOING. It involves a strategic pause. A mental time-out. Space for their brains to percolate and process the mounds of the information they’ve been packing in.

Whatever we call it, this new habit requires consistently taking some time away from the chaos of business to let ourselves reflect and plan. To connect the dots between information in different ways and to look at challenges from a fresh angle. We can’t possibly do that when we are in constant motion.

No doubt about it, modern leaders have realized the extraordinary benefits of the strategic pause. They don’t mistake motion for meaning.

Neuroscientists at Washington University tested this theory by collecting brain-scan data from people who were busy doing mental tasks like math problems and word games. While the intense focus of these tasks caused spikes in some parts of the brain, it also caused declines in other parts.

These researchers ultimately found a background activity in the brain that, oddly enough, is much more active when people are sitting quietly in a room doing nothing. That’s a pivotal finding.

They discovered that the “resting brain” is actually quite busy with absorbing and evaluating information, but we curtail that function when we allow the “active brain” to hijack all the mental energy. If we want creativity to flourish, we need to deliberately pause on occasion and allow that background process to take priority.

As hard as it is for us doers to believe, all the evidence says that maximum effectiveness and innovation start with…STOPPING.  

Yes, it’s tough to do. I admit it. We’ve been taught to move forward, to finish, to be relentless. We have even been handsomely rewarded for it.

But I am here to tell you that this bias for action could be working against you. If you want your organization and your team to grow, incorporate the strategic pause. Proactively make an unbreakable appointment with yourself to think. To be. Give yourself time and space. Change the scenery. You, your team, and all your stakeholders will be glad you did.  


Keynote Speaker, LinkedIn Learning Instructor and Author SaraCanaday is a rare blend of analytical entrepreneur and perceptive warmth. That powerful combination has increasingly made her a go-to resource for helping leaders and high-potential professionals achieve their best. She is a sought-after leadership speaker and educator, serving diverse organizations around the world. In that capacity, Sara has gained a unique, front-line view of leadership and its fascinating evolution. She shares those observations with in-depth analysis in her second book, Leadership Unchained:  Defy conventional wisdom for breakthrough performance,”.

No comments: