The Strategic Leader’s Work (Reflection)

Part 4 of a Series on Strategic Leadership

In previous posts, I defined strategic leadership and began to identify one way to look at the strategic leader’s work by breaking it down into ten responsibilities to fulfill:

  1. Manage and lead yourself
  2. Create the team, generate their commitment, and get clear on who’s responsible for what.
  3. Set the vision
  4. Intentionally set time aside for thinking
  5. Establish the organizational framework and continuously connect the dots to fulfill the vision
  6. Determine what needs attention in a VUCA environment
  7. Frame the strategic questions we need to answer
  8. From those questions, establish a Leadership Agenda
  9. From the Agenda, determine our current priority
  10. Commission teams to run experiments to begin to answer the question to fulfill the vision

We examined some of what it takes to manage and lead yourself and what it takes to create the team, generate their commitment, get clear on who’s responsible for what, and why creating a compelling vision is an essential task.  In this post, we’ll continue to explore some of what senior leaders must be paying attention to.

Intentionally Set Time Aside for Thinking

“Leaders need the grounded confidence to stay tethered to their values, respond rather than react emotionally, and operate from self-awareness, not self-protection.” – Brene´ Brown in “Dare to Lead,” p. 168


An Epidemic of Busyness

Over the past 20+ years of coaching, I’ve spent more than 40,000 hours, one-on-one with leaders and individuals.  I always start a session with some version of “What’s going on?”  The most frequent answers: “I’m busy… Unbelievably busy… Crazy busy!”  Or my favorite: “It’s really busy right now.”  Pardon the former English teacher, but to what does the pronoun, “it,” refer?  We can become “victims” of busyness.

Henry David Thoreau said, “Even the ants are busy.  The question is what are we being busy about?”

In our quest to respond to an ever-increasing barrage of breakdowns and VUCA-filled (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) environment, leaders have gotten really good at “fire-fighting.”  Reacting is not always leading (although it is sometimes – just not all the time).  If we’re always reacting, when are we being proactive?  Who’s setting the direction and creating the agenda for the organization while we’re “busy?”  Who’s identifying the big, unanswerable questions we need to begin taking a look at and which one is the most important one – at this moment?

Fire-Fighting vs. Fire Prevention

Stephen Covey famously identified this phenomenon as the “Urgency Addiction.”   In his book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Covey’s third habit is “First Things First” (it was so powerful that he ended up writing a book by the same title just to deal with this habit because it resonated with so many people way back in 1994 – some things never change!).  Covey’s model says we can divide all of our daily activities into four “quadrants” – Urgent and Important, Not Urgent and Important, Urgent and Not Important, and Not Urgent and Not Important.  The last two are activities – like some email, interruptions, some meetings, busywork, and any time wasters – we should reduce or eliminate.  But the quadrant we’re attracted to the most is the Urgent and Important – what I call the “fire-fighting” quadrant.  It’s a leading contributor to why we’re so “busy.”

We get so good at putting out fires that we look forward to the next alarm going off.  Our bodies respond with an adrenaline/cortisol rush as our amygdala’s go into overdrive and we’re rewarded for our ability to respond to these fires with an addictive shot of dopamine.  I know that for a big part of my career, I was highly addicted to this physical/mental manifestation.  I would get a request for a proposal that had to be in Singapore in one week and go into “all-hands-on-deck” mode.

I vividly remember being at a meeting on a Friday in Philadelphia to hear a Boeing executive speak.  After his talk, I had the opportunity to sit next to him during lunch and he told me about an exciting opportunity that Boeing was going to launch and an important meeting that would be held in Seattle on Tuesday (remember, this was Friday).  I could see all kinds of possibilities for how it would benefit my employer.  He asked if I could attend and I said, “yes!” It was urgent and it was important and I had no idea how I was going to make it happen.  It not only put me into an adrenaline rush mode, but also put some important work on “hold,” disrupted family plans, made people in our office change their priorities, and exhausted me.  But I was in Seattle that Monday to prepare for the Tuesday meeting.  Do we ever think of the consequences of this “busyness” epidemic to ourselves and others?

What about spending some time in fire prevention?  What about being more proactive and dealing with important issues that aren’t necessarily urgent?  If we spent just a small percentage of our time in this proactive mode, perhaps we’d reduce the number of fires that start popping up.  If leaders demonstrate less “busyness,” then perhaps we could begin to shape different culture in organizations where people could actually work and live differently.

Some “Experiments” to Try

“When I lack self-awareness as a leader and when I’m not connected with the intentions driving my thoughts, feelings, and actions, I limit the perspective and insights that I can share with the people I lead.” (Dr. Sane´e Bell as quoted by Brene´ Brown in “Dare to Lead,” p. 179)

Being a strategic leader means that you’re able to keep the big picture and focus on important and not urgent work while ensuring you have the team in place to take care of the breakdowns that inevitably occur.  One way to do that is bye setting aside time to reflect.  But how do I set aside time when I’m already overwhelmed and squeezing every moment of time to get done what I have to get done?  I know; I’ve heard this hundreds of times (and even thought it myself – and sometimes still do!).

Start Small

In his book, “Mini-Habits,” Stephen Guise says the easier a habit, the easier it is to sustain.  He recommends starting with something so small that it would be ridiculously easy to accomplish.  What about committing five minutes per day to focus on identifying one thing that you should be focused on?  The great thing about small habits is they usually grow into ten minutes, 30 minutes, and other variations.

Make an Appointment with Yourself

I don’t know about you, but I pride myself on keeping my appointments.  They’re commitments I make – promises – and in order to be trustworthy (a key trait of any leader), I need to keep my promises.  But I never used to make promises or make commitments to myself.  Oh, sure, I had good intentions, but like Joel Barker once said, “a plan is just a wish unless it’s written down.”

Put an hour a week, a half-day a week, a half-day a month, a day a month in your calendar and mark it “Important Meeting.”  Make it recurring and don’t let anyone (including yourself) override it.  After all, there’s a lot at stake.

Try a Monthly Retreat in a Quiet and Inspiring Space

Several of my clients who are senior leaders take a half-day or full-day a month and set aside time to get away from the office.  One goes to a retreat center in our county.  He discovered a new vision statement for his company while sitting in a tree.  Another client is fortunate enough to have a friend who lets him use his cabin in western Pennsylvania for a weekend, once a quarter.  The only thing he takes with him is a pack of pens and several writing pads.  I’m sure you have that favorite spot that, if you didn’t have to worry about distractions, would be the ideal spot to sit and think.


Some Additional Ideas

So I have my ideal, inspiring space, my favorite writing tools, some of my favorite snacks and beverages, and a regularly scheduled retreat.  What now?  How do I avoid “writers’ block?”  Two articles from Harvard Business Review have some additional good ideas.

Lanaj, Foulk, and Erez (How Self-Reflection Can Help Leaders Stay Motivated,) suggest taking a few minutes in the morning to think and write about three things that they like about themselves and that make them a good leader.  Their research found that “on days when leaders took a few minutes in the morning to reflect and write about aspects of themselves that make them good leaders, they subsequently felt less depleted and more engaged, and they reported having a positive impact on their followers.”

Reeves, Torres, and Hassan (How to Regain the Lost Art of Reflection), make the case that “reacting and execution – while it may feel productive – causes the quality of our thoughts to suffer.”  They site Warren Buffet’s habit of reading extensively, safeguarding time for personal development projects, and constantly seeking new stimulus and perspectives as habits that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, among others, share.

Some of what they recommend:

  • Schedule unstructured thinking time
  • Get a coach or discussion partner to stimulate reflection; have regular probing conversations with a trusted partner around strategic questions and topic you’re curious about
  • Cultivate a list of questions which prompts reflective thought.  Some of these include:
    • What’s the purpose of the company?
    • What would I do differently if I could recreate the organization from scratch?
    • What do I not know about the industry and the company?
    • What unique value can I add in my role?
    • What are the big questions we need to be answering that have no textbook answers?

“Your job as a [senior leader] is to make sure that all work done in your organization is useful and productive… that it addresses the right questions.”  Are you paying attention to the right questions?  Are you assembling teams of talented, committed people to come up with the answers?  Do you have your organization focused on the one thing that matters most?  How do you do that without intentionally setting aside time for reflective thinking?

Next post, we’ll examine one of the most confounding problems many leaders are unaware of – understanding the components of the organization and making sure there’s fit and function.

© Geoff Davis, 4/5/19

Leave a Reply