Leadership and the art of standing still

Monday, January 15th, 2018.

I don’t know about you, but it already seems to me that 2018 is racing forward, the year no longer “New”.  Traditionally a time of planning and goal setting, my clients are telling me how much they are in action mode already, with barely a moment to stand still.  In my private life, discussions about the delivery of The Man in the Forest have crystallised around this coming Thursday… if not now, we found, it could be another three months before our diaries coincide.

The Man in the Forest, by Jenny Southam
The Man in the Forest, by Jenny Southam

As I sit and write, I think back to the beginning of my career, in the ’80s.  (How long will it be – if it isn’t the case already – before we designate this time the 1980s, in recognition that this decade belongs not only to the last century but also to the last millennium?)  Starting with a significant recession as the UK government sought to contain rampant inflation, it became a decade of “yuppee” growth and attendant confidence before recession returned and the housing market collapsed in the early ’90s.

For my contemporaries, there was a clear correlation at this time between their willingness to graft and attendant returns.  In London’s premier legal firms, for example, talented young lawyers knew their labours would land them a partnership in their early 30s or, if not, a sought after job elsewhere.  Success seemed assured if you only put the hours in.

Many of us are still “putting the hours in”, as if this alone is our recipe for success.  We do it because it was our willingness to graft that earnt us high performance ratings and early promotions in the beginning of our careers.  We do it because technology has, increasingly, wired us in, 24/7, to respond to whatever comes our way.  We do it because we are anxious about the consequences of not doing it when our contemporaries do.  Perhaps, even, we do it because we haven’t stopped to consider that there might be any other way.

But now?  Really?

If, in your leadership role, you are constantly active with never a moment to pause and reflect, the risks you face include the following:

  • The greatest risk of all is that your responsiveness to others makes you a follower, not a leader.  You are not able to shape a vision or direction of travel because you are busy doing things… doing the “stuff” that others require you to do;
  • There’s another reason why you can’t shape a vision or direction of travel.  You can’t do it because you don’t have time to stop, reflect and notice what is true in the world. You don’t know where you want to get to.  You don’t know where you’re starting from.  You don’t have an informed view of what is true today that wasn’t true yesterday or may not be true tomorrow. How can you think about which way you need to go when you are so ill informed?
  • And yes, there is a risk that your constant “busy-ness” has left you so depleted and tired that your ability to make sound decisions, or even to make decisions at all, has been significantly impaired.  How long has it been now since you felt truly rested?  Only you will know.

So, if I am sharing my picture of Jenny Southam’s The Man in the Forest, it is not only from my pure delight at the prospect of welcoming him into my home.  Whether you are a man or a woman, he has something to teach you.

You cannot shape a forward path without stopping, first, to notice where you are.

What’s more, even more than you, the people you look up to may have lost sight of the way the world is changing or feel desperate to bring it under control.

We cannot bring it under control.

Sometimes it is time to stop running through the forest of our lives and simply to stand still.  Sometimes it is time to stand still and notice every detail of where we are.  Which side of the trees does the moss grow on and how much?  Is there stillness in the forest or a breeze?  Is the forest dry or is there rain?  What young trees are waiting for their chance to reach up towards the sun?  And is there room for them to grow?

Before the year runs away with you, I ask you:  is it time for you stride forward in a flurry of activity or is it time for you to stand still?

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