Results are at the top of most leaders’ agendas - as they should be. Successful leadership depends on going somewhere, and taking others with you. But we all have times when we get stuck. Either we don’t know where to go next, or we realise that we’ve had our head down for so long that we’ve lost the way. Sometimes the best thing to do is stop.
Just as it’s not enough to think instead of do, it’s also no good just doing things without thinking. You can keep every app open in your smartphone, but that’ll take its toll on the battery. It’s the same with the mind. You can juggle everything for a short time, but over the long-term it’s just not sustainable.
Unfortunately, the most underrated leadership skill is reflection. And yet, taking a moment to step back develops observation, insight and inspired action. Even in the heat of battle soldiers are encouraged to stop, pause, reflect, then engage - even if just for a second. Far too many business leaders find themselves too busy, which leaves them constantly reacting, always on the back foot.
I’m a Geordie, so I’ve grown up and spent most of my life not talking about mindfulness and certainly not about meditation. I’ve long preferred a sporting analogy like the importance of focus and breathing. But in truth it comes down to the same thing - inspired action comes from clarity, and that requires reflection and being truly connected in the moment.
A strong leader is always role-modelling ‘present and connected’. I’ve discussed the importance of talking to employees at every level of your organisation in previous blogs; being truly present goes way beyond that. By being aware of what’s going on, what other people are saying, what they’re not saying and what you’re saying to yourself, you can focus on what’s essential. Followers are the essential ingredient in leadership. Focussing on others gives you the ‘data’ to be inspired in your action.
Pausing to reflect means you can choose a course of action rather than being forced to react. Sometimes the path of least resistance makes the most sense. This is not an example from a leadership context, but just this morning I found myself arguing with my daughters about where to drop them off for school. I got wound up, they got upset and eventually I realised I’d lost sight of what mattered. Had I taken a moment to pause, breathe and reflect, I would have found a solution that worked for all of us.
I was reminded of a talk I heard by Juliet Funt recently on her theory of ‘Whitespace’. She takes the principle of time-out further than mindfulness and meditation by carving out proper space to do nothing. It makes sense: after all, where do our best ideas come from? Often in the shower, on a run, sitting in a deckchair. So, to have better ideas it makes sense to create that time for ourselves. What we call it – properly selfish, me-time or strategy time - does not matter. Our ‘driven achiever’ behaviour of doing everything and filling space leaves no time for inspired reflection and action.
The things we tend to think of as big issues in our lives are often actually reflections of what we’re thinking and therefore what we are feeling. Looking at problems in this way allows us to realise that we have the power to fix them. Leaders are constantly faced with a list of things to do. But when they close down all the apps in their head, they know which things they must do and which to let go.
My job as a professional irritant is to get my clients to fall out of their thinking, and to do that they need room to think. I’m proud of our consultants’ ability to bring new perspectives and present challenges for our clients in a different light that makes the issues easier to overcome. After all, when leaders build reflection into their routine, they get results every time. And on that note, I’m off to do some Headspace, something I never thought I would say.