How slowing down made me a better leader

Open leadership is just as much about patient listening as it is about execution.
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Early in my career, I thought the most important thing I could do was act. If my boss said jump, my reply was "how high?"

But as I've grown as a leader and manager, I've realized that the most important traits I can offer are patience and listening. This patience and listening means I'm focusing on what's really important. I'm decisive, so I do not hesitate to act. Yet I've learned that my actions are more impactful when I consider input from multiple sources and offer advice on what we should be doing—not simply reacting to an immediate request.

Practicing open leadership involves cultivating the patience and listening skills I need to collaborate on the best plan of action, not just the quickest one. It also gives me the tools I need to explain why I'm saying "no" (or, perhaps, "not now") to someone, so I can lead with transparency and confidence.

If you're in software development and practice scrum, then the following argument might resonate with you: The patience and listening a manager displays are as important as her skills in sprint planning and running the sprint demo. Forget about them, and you'll lessen the impact you're able to have.

A focus on patience

Focus and patience do not always come easily. Often, I find myself sitting in meetings and filling my notebook with action items. My default action can be to think: "We can simply do x and y will improve!" Then I remember that things are not so linear.

I need to think about the other factors that can influence a situation. Pausing to take in data from multiple people and resources helps me flesh out a strategy that our organization needs for long-term success. It also helps me identify those shorter-term milestones that should lead us to deliver the business results I'm responsible for producing.

Here's a great example from a time when patience wasn't something I valued as I should have—and how that hurt my performance. When I was based on North Carolina, I worked with someone based in Arizona. We didn't use video conferencing technologies, so I didn't get to observe her body language when we talked. While I was responsible for delivering the results for the project I led, she was one of the two people tasked with making sure I had adequate support.

For whatever reason, when I talked with this person, when she asked me to do something, I did it. She would be providing input on my performance evaluation, so I wanted to make sure she was happy. At the time, I didn't possess the maturity to know I didn't need to make her happy; my focus should have been on other performance indicators. I should have spent more time listening and collaborating with her instead of picking up the first "action item" and working on it while she was still talking.

After six months on the job, this person gave me some tough feedback. I was angry and sad. Didn't I do everything she'd asked? I had worked long hours, nearly seven days a week for six months. How dare she criticize my performance?

Then, after I had my moment of anger followed by sadness, I thought about what she said. Her feedback was on point.

The patience and listening a manager displays are as important as her skills in sprint planning and running the sprint demo.

She had concerns about the project, and she held me accountable because I was responsible. We worked through the issues, and I learned that vital lesson about how to lead: Leadership does not mean "get it done right now." Leadership means putting together a strategy, then communicating and implementing plans in support of the strategy. It also means making mistakes and learning from these hiccups.

Lesson learned

In hindsight, I realize I could have asked more questions to better understand the intent of her feedback. I also could have pushed back if the guidance from her did not align with other input I was receiving. By having the patience to listen to the various sources giving me input about the project, synthesizing what I learned, and creating a coherent plan for action, I would have been a better leader. I also would have had more purpose driving the work I was doing. Instead of reacting to a single data point, I would have been implementing a strategic plan. I also would have had a better performance evaluation.

I eventually had some feedback for her. Next time we worked together, I didn't want to hear the feedback after six months. I wanted to hear the feedback earlier and more often so I could learn from the mistakes sooner. An ongoing discussion about the work is what should happen on any team.

As I mature as a manager and leader, I hold myself to the same standards I ask my team to meet: Plan, work the plan, and reflect. Repeat. Don't let a fire drill created by an external force distract you from the plan you need to implement. Breaking work into small increments builds in space for reflections and adjustments to the plan. As Daniel Goleman writes, "Directing attention toward where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership." Don't be afraid of meeting this challenge.

picture of Angela Robertson
Love leading teams to develop products customers love and can use with ease.;


Something I've noticed with various creative things I've done over the years, is that when I get productive, I'm in a sort of "zone", where my focus is acute and therefore output increases.
You can't create that zone with the snap of a finger, though there are ways to set the stage for it, but sometimes you have to step back if it just isn't going to happen. You do learn some techniques that encourage that focus to happen.
Conversely in a work situation, it can be very disruptive to progress to take someone out of their zone with some not so essential meeting, which ironically might have been called to talk about the progress that was just interrupted by the meeting.

Agree - flow is a great state for working effectively. I appreciate it when I have team members who tell member that stopping what they're doing to attend a meeting or some other event impedes their flow and ability to have meaningful impact. Meeting just to meet is counter productive.

In reply to by Greg P

Thank you for sharing Angela. This resonated with me as I'm focusing this year on prioritization and seeking first to understand. I've noticed that when I do these things the results are far better. I've also noticed, like anything new, there are times when the old habits re-surface, reminding me to do better next time. Your article is an inspiration to help keep me on that development path.

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