In an interview March 26 David Frum, author and political commentator, provided compelling insights into the decision-making processes gripping the White House. He spoke about how much of what was happening was framed around the President’s previous experience of fighting off multiple bankruptcies. Survival has been long etched into his psyche. Frum made an interesting observation that after survival, the President’s operating principles were based on winning and escaping.
These are the dead weights of leadership.
All of us have them. Mindsets evolve as a result of past experiences; silently, they guide our every move on the chessboard. Unchecked, they are the early authors of tunnel vision, blind spots and what we take for granted.
Today, dead weight dynamics unconsciously shape decisions being made on our behalf. Advocates of “herd immunity” have counselled a few world leaders to let COVID-19 take its course. The survival of the economy, they say, hangs in the balance. Opponents, passionately make the case for saving as many lives as possible and using whatever means available to accomplish this. Leaders are urged to creatively outthink this nasty virus, reinvent core products and services, thrashing it to bits.
Emerging from these two views is a dilemma that every country, every company, every community and every individual will find themselves facing in the coming months. They will need to become masters of “prag-manity”. I define this quality as the purposeful balancing of what’s expedient – as in what is the most pragmatic course of action and what’s right – as in what’s best for humanity.
The new yoga of leadership is the pause
In my last post, about leading during COVID-19, I wrote about leaders needing to become compression experts. But to take advantage of this, leaders need methods to pause before they make decisions. Reflecting critically is the new step back. Flexibly bending back on past experiences helps leaders to see themselves – warts and all – with a sharper, critical eye. This form of reflection is what I call the new yoga of leadership.
As leaders face unrelenting pressure to make decisions, they need to pause, exploring their own dead weight. These are the moments that cause mis-steps. Blunders we had no intention of making. Add to this the need to hastily take in expert insight while absorbing ridiculous amounts of information and you’re soon swimming in a toxic soup of assumptions. Topping it off, we are integrating all of these inputs at the pace of the last minute of a Raptor’s game. In this sense, speed really can kill.
We all know the end game in this pandemic: to make hurried, but effective decisions that are least harmful to those most vulnerable. The antithesis to “move fast and break things”.
It’s widely acknowledged leaders are hired because they know how to jump into action. Here’s where pause one comes into play. Stare down, acknowledge and assess the “dead weight” you may be carrying around. Think about past hurts, failures, victories and everything in between. Have these experiences made you become the bully? The hero? The victim? Write these down. This is the scar tissue that may be clouding your judgement. Ask yourself how they could influence your ability to make a clear-eyed decision right now.
Pause two centres on improving decisions by gaining psychological and where possible, physical distance from them. How many of us have gone out for a run or taken a coffee break, for example, to find that when we return to the decision at hand, new perspectives and insights flood our mind. So make a careful calculation: confirm when you need to make the decision and then…back away. Even five minutes can make a difference.
From there, pause three helps us find room to manoeuvre. Think of it like hiking around the perimeter of the Grand Canyon, where you take in, and make sense of, the complete vista while struggling with vertigo. Many leaders dread dizzying decision making exercises. They’re like drinking from an informational firehouse. Research reveals that decision making while drowning in data leads to poor decisions. Take the time available to visualize outcomes, peer through multiple lenses, weigh resources and constraints. On the human side, be hyper-aware of the input of those around you…and those closest to the decision. is one of the most refreshing pauses of the three.
Making the time to master the stare down, the step back and the edge walk are capabilities worth developing. Leaders everywhere, if they haven’t already, need to prepare themselves for the pause. A few minutes of purposeful reflection can influence whether you shut down your enterprise or retool it. Being a student of prag-manity ensures you have a fighting chance to make a decision that is both pragmatic – and humane.