Pause before you decide

woman entering a maze

Balancing the pragmatic with doing what’s right is key – knowing how to pause is in order                                                                                 Source: Burst on Unsplash

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”.

Three pauses

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.

Lead like your life depends on it


A door matt with an area to place home delivery

   Be open to change the way you think about leadership                                                                                                     Photo: The Atlantic, March 13, 2020

What a difference a few months makes. Were you like me on New Year’s Day?  Excited about the prospect of a new decade, eager to dive into work, optimistic this decade would be different…well, we got one of our three wishes. It’s different alright. Leading through COVID-19 will be unlike anything we’ve experienced.

Who would have guessed the most vital capability today would be leading at breakneck speed, slowing things down while getting ready to run a marathon? The key learning from previous epidemics is you can never move fast enough. Planning, however, takes time. Leaders are drinking from firehouses of intel, fuelling decisions that have unknown consequences.

Leaders are acquiring a whole new way to lead. Leaders are becoming compression experts. 

Take the example of Singapore, regarded as a country ahead in flattening the curve. Their secret weapon? Multi-faceted rapid deployment response in travel controls, patient protocols and distancing measures.

But there’s a chink in their armour: The problem? With all that methodical control, they couldn’t convince citizens to stay home. Twenty-three new cases were reported March 17. The majority are people returning home from infected areas. Another page now needs to be added into their playbook.

COVID-19 patients waiting to be tested

While patients are waiting to be tested for COVID-19, think about how your leadership will be tested in the coming year

Four Watch-Outs

As leaders grapple with the world crisis, here are four watch-outs and the accompanying questions you can ask as you stare down COVID-19.

Assess your readiness to lead. As we think about brave leaders from frontline healthcare to leadership teams working in eerie silence, I couldn’t help but remember a saying my mother would use when us kids faced tough challenges: “forewarned is forearmed”.

This is the time to take stock of what you bring to the party. It’s the moment to identify where you are strong and where you need help. It’s not a time to fool yourself. Look back. Where did you shine, when did your temper run short, when did you have self-doubt? Put those same lenses on those who work with you.

The vital work here is to identifying expertise, experience and capabilities you may not have, but need. It’s the most brutal form of authenticity – admitting we don’t know it all, can’t do it all.

Let the past inform the present – but not too much. We are living in a time of known unknowns. Remember back to when you launched out into the unknown. Ask yourself “What previous crises have I faced like this?” Times where you were literally teaching yourself in the moment. This is one of those times. Play the movie in your mind of those moments. Recall mis-steps. Map out the similarities and differences between then and now. Next, study your actions. What were the results? What would you have done differently? Document these and share them.

Become a student of the virtual voice: You will grow tired of repeatedly saying the same three key messages. But they must be said, and often. Check yourself by asking “How do I instill urgency while reducing panic?” Begin with humanity, channel your values  – and mean them.

Meet people where they are. Old-fashioned phone calls are back (!) alongside  Zooms and LinkedIn forums. Share stories and learn from each other to ease the tension. Jettison the idea of best practices, move to “next practices” that flesh out scenarios.

Rethink power: At times of crisis, the top of the house tends to grab the reins, stripping decision-making from those less senior, no matter how capable they may be. Don’t fall into this trap. This is the time to see problems by from every angle. Ask “Who’s missing from the table?” Unearth and engage those most qualified to work the problem. This is where databases like RBC’s employee skill inventory pay handsomely.

Reach back into your memory and out into your networks. No doubt, these colleagues are in the same @#!% spot you’re in.

Is COVID-19 like SARS? Yes and no. SARS was driven by exposure to infected individuals but did not spread with the ferocity of COVID-19.  Simply replicating what we did in 2002 will be not enough. As you prepare for tomorrow’s leadership, assess your strengths and reach out like you never have before. It’s not trite to say we all need to lead like our lives depend on it…because this time, it does.

Leadership & The Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King and Ella Baker speaking to crowds of protesters during the Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King and Ella Baker – Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Source:

King. Parks. Baker: Three Civil Rights Leaders, Three Practices

The first name, Martin Luther King, we all know and venerate. The second name is also familiar. Rosa Parks symbolized defiance. The third name, however, is not as well-known. Ella Baker played an integral, behind-the-scenes-role in the Civil Rights Movement for five decades.

Each played unique and critical roles. King as the firebrand, Parks as resister and Baker as activist.

Widely regarded as one of the most tireless, modest and wisest activists, Ms. Baker is remembered for saying: “You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up the pieces or put together pieces of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

speaking at the Jeannette Rankin news conference, January 3, 1968. Ruby Dee at right.

Ella Baker speaking at the Jeannette Rankin news conference, January 3, 1968. Ruby Dee at right. (Jack Harris/AP Images.)

Some researchers argue that it was none other than Ella Baker who initiated the birth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). A group that would be credited for setting the agenda for much of the Civil Rights Movement, testing out how participatory democracy might actually work in real life.

It was here that Ms. Baker embraced the growing social movement known as “participatory democracy” where the emphasis rested on participation and enlistment. The movement focused on grassroots involvement, minimized hierarchy and heralded a distaste for the charismatic, professional leadership emerging from a growing bureaucracy within the Civil Rights Movement.

King was a brilliant orator and beacon, however, participatory democracy called for direct action that would activate the public voice on a grassroots level. Dr. King would arrive to hold a rally and a press conference, and then needed to move quickly on to the next city. As social activist Howard Zinn noted, Baker and her colleagues took on the work that “famous men did not have the time to do”. They practiced self-leadership, traveling to small towns in the South and sitting for hours taking down the names, addresses, occupations and immediate money needs of people who looked to them for a different kind of leadership.

Change from Above and Below

So what do these three people, each a leader in their own right, have to teach us about leadership? They demonstrate the tension between hierarchy and heterarchy, a flat structure that does not require defined roles to operate within strict limits. In this configuration, people undertake leadership roles when necessary.

Popular opinion argues that Martin Luther King was the prime driving force – the leader perched atop the hierarchy of the Civil Rights Movement. However, a compelling case can be made that the early activism of Rosa Parks and Ella Baker established the vital role of being change agents from within.

Ella Baker fused hierarchy and heterarchy by maintaining her presence in Dr. King’s inner circle, while simultaneously registering her skepticism of the leadership at the top of the movement, believing that change needed to come from the grassroots or it might not never happen. With internationally distributed photos depicting dogs attacking marchers and the fire hosing of protesters, change erupted as a result of these brave, grassroot protests.

Martin Luther King was gunned down on April 4, 1968. No doubt, he remains one of the world’s most powerful representatives for peaceful change. But while we still mourn his passing, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t die with him. All three, King, Parks and Baker, played integral roles and had their places in a movement that harnessed differing forms of leadership. Parks was noted for her grit: her mantra was that she was “tired of giving in”.

Demonstrators at the 1963 March on Washington

Demonstrators at the 1963 March on Washington. Carl T. Gossett Jr. The New York Times

Baker never gave in either, maintaining that leadership was a collective responsibility, which she characterized as “the nectar divine” – meaning that it was a celebration of diverse opinions that caused people to take action to advance the cause. For this, she was given the Swahili nickname “Fundi” meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation. Ultimately, it was the collective action of the firebrand, the resister and the activist that inspired Civil Rights legislation.

Let’s hope that as 2018 progresses, all of our workplaces are more appreciative of not only their own unique “divine nectar” but the many differing forms of leadership that need to be embraced. It may be more work to take on, but the rewards are there for those who care to listen, to question and to take action.