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February 2013: Telling Time in Leadership

Ancient devices like sundials, water clocks, and hourglasses reveal a historically consistent quirk among humans: We want to know what time it is.

Figuring out the optimal time to speak, act, or decide dictates the daily effectiveness of presidents, partners and parents. Their internal timepiece tells leaders when to hold on and when to let go, when to make a move and when to wait.

It’s one thing to possess a skill; it’s another to know when to use it. This distinction is widely ignored in organizations. When their timekeeping goes haywire, leaders might over-indulge their abilities, turning strengths into weaknesses, Or, they might employ a talent at an unwise moment, squelching an opportunity.

Every decision involves a “when.” Some of these moments are more important than others. Consider these three common clock-testers for leaders:

1. When to answer – or not answer – a question?

Warren, an investment banker and coaching client, related how much thought he put into responding to two, recent questions. The first, from his 12-year-old daughter, left him sheepish and rattled: “Have you ever cheated on mommy?” (Warren momentarily regretted his longstanding encouragement of his kids to “ask me anything you want,” since, in this instance, a brief fling early in his marriage put him in a moral bind).

After recognizing the inappropriateness of giving his daughter an unequivocal answer, Warren crafted a skillful response that fit the situation: “Mommy and I have decided we don’t want to cheat on each other – we are happy to be married, and to have a great family.”

The second stumper came from Lisa, the manager of his New Jersey office, who asked, “What am I supposed to do about Jack?” (An aging partner who no longer contributes to the company’s business goals).

Concluding that not every question has to be settled by him, Warren said, “Lisa, I’m willing to be a sounding board for you, but I won’t make the decision on how to approach Jack. I would like to hear your best thinking on that.”

What do you make of the idea that not answering a question, or answering indirectly, can in certain situations, be more helpful to the questioner than an “honest and direct” response?

2. When to be – or not be – available?

Nia suffers from chronic availability. Whenever someone needs a favor, she automatically says yes. If a co-worker enters her office to chat, she drops everything and invites the person to have a seat. When her kids ask for money, she gives it, though sometimes with a roll of her eyes.

Recently, Nia discussed the toll on work and well-being that her hyper-availability promotes: An avid equestrian, she hasn’t ridden her horse in weeks, and she postponed an important medical test to attend a fund-raiser for a friend’s charity. Nia faces increasing stress over unmet work commitments.

Despite these mounting perils, exercising the option to say “no” scares Nia to death. She says she wants to be seen as a person who makes a difference to others, one who’s looked up to as a good mom, wife, friend and sister. At 46, she’s a newbie at thinking, “there are times to be unavailable.”

Nia is working on this – she actually taped a sign reading “Tied up until Noon ” to her closed office door but – as evidenced by the oddly reassuring smiley face tacked onto the message – her progress is slow and arduous. It’s as if the backbone required by her to set limits is twisted out of alignment.

One question leaders might ask: When does our availability to those around us actually hinder their growth?

3. When to walk away, and when to invest:

I work with a management team where one member recently up and left. The story line was, “I don’t get along with the boss.” Even though all such binds have two-way swinging doors, it wasn’t difficult to see the reactivity in the departing person’s statements to me: “I don’t need this.” “I feel unappreciated.” “I have other options.”

How does anyone make a wise decision in an uncomfortable relationship? I have seen marital affairs ruin long-time unions, but the sneaky truth is I’ve seen plenty of cheating that ended up saving marriages. Tension spots in a relationship might feel like The Road to Splitsville, but can also re-invigorate a partnership if the singing shifts to a different key. The same is true of business deals: A short-term rough spot can just as likely turn out to be a wake-up call as a death knell.

Not every impulse to take a hike can be trusted, and not all brands of loyalty deserve unswerving commitment. Getting good at telling the difference grows leadership confidence.

What tells you when to give up on a relationship, or a business deal, and when to persist?

Developing “When to” instincts

Faced with difficult decisions, do you want to develop better “when to” instincts?

I don’t have a formula for this, but I do suspect that being able to think more broadly and deeply, and less reactively, about all life experiences prepares one to face scratchy, everyday challenges with greater poise and impact. This requires disciplined reflection, mentoring and experimentation over a long period of time. It’s not for “quick results” gold-panners.

I abolish guarantees. But I predict better outcomes from a self-aware, exposed-to-the-world leader than from one who knows little about self, and even less about what’s going on in the world.

3 Responses to “February 2013: Telling Time in Leadership”

  1. February 01, 2013 at 11:54 am, Meg Joseph said:

A simple concept transformed into thought provoking, life changing action. Meaningful, accessible analogies.

  1. February 01, 2013 at 8:54 pm, Tim said:

Reminds me to listen to the inner voice telling me “shut up and reflect on this before just telling or giving the answer” or the related little voice that whispers to me when someone if trying to give me their problems to solve.

  1. February 02, 2013 at 2:18 am, Joseph said:

I can see eternity thru your words…you have your finger on the pulse…no wonder I like you…I’d add a smattering of crazy to make you more real…but def a wall street ( life ) buddist.

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