By Doug Moran
June 10, 2010
Patience is a virtue. This pearl of wisdom can be a bone in the throat of even the most patient leaders. Patience is an easy thing to talk about, but it is extremely difficult to practice. Webster’s defines it as “the quality of being capable of bearing affliction calmly.” Most of us think of patience as a construct of time, but I prefer to think of it more broadly - enduring difficulty and hardship while preparing to act. Patience requires us to bear the impatience of others, and the snipping and nagging that goes with it.
Patience is a quality often lacking among today’s leaders. Society expects those in charge to take action quickly and decisively. True leaders recognize that patience enables them to take stock of the situation, to understand what is required, and to wait while they build the capacity to take appropriate and effective action.
By demonstrating patience, leaders reinforce the importance of focusing on the long-term outcomes. It doesn’t mean ignoring the interim milestones or short-term deliverable. Rather, it means keeping them in context. Many tasks associated with leadership require patience (e.g., strategic planning, negotiations, people development, program management, etc.).
The bigger the issue and the longer the planning horizon, the greater the patience required to remain committed. Strategic plans, for example, typically have a long-term time horizon and address big issues that affect an organization. It is easy for a leader to see the desired end-state and want to jump ahead without exercising the patience needed to succeed. Leadership means understanding that patience may require sacrificing short-term glory for long-term results.
Patience has contributed to many great leadership successes, and impatience has led to many failures. Benjamin Franklin’s successful negotiation with France to support the American Revolution was a great test of his patience. It required years of hard work and sacrifice, but in the end, it was instrumental in American independence. Gandhi demonstrated extraordinary patience in working for a free and independent India. For more than 30 years, Gandhi worked, never varying from his commitment to non-violence. His patience resulted in a free India.
Impatience is at the heart of the international financial crisis. Many attribute it to greed and regulatory failures. I contend that the root of the problem was impatience on the part of investors, consumers, lenders, politicians and regulators. Everyone wanted immediate results. Too many people lacked the patience required to create real long-term value. Their impatience led to disaster.
While patience is an essential leadership attribute, it also demands skills more often associated with management. Our ability to lead patiently requires us to manage the situations in which we find ourselves.
1. Leaders seek to understand the situation and establish the facts. Leaders ask hard questions. How important is this problem? How urgent is its resolution? How can we leverage our skills and the skills of others to gain an understanding of the situation we face?
2. Leaders have the patience to create a plan. Patience requires us to know what we are going to do. Planning is a critical management function that enables leaders to build stakeholder confidence.
3. Leaders build support and get the right backing. Any good program manager knows that the best way to relieve the pressure from impatient stakeholders is having a powerful and engaged sponsor. Enlisting and retaining the right support is a critical component to leading patiently.
4. Leaders execute their plan on their schedule. Having the confidence to stick to our plan is challenging. It means holding our ground when others challenge us. More importantly, it means ensuring that we deliver on our commitments.
5. Leaders prepare to respond to the unexpected. Nothing ever goes as planned, and the sign of a good plan and great leader is the ability to respond effectively when things go awry. Unforeseen events are always a test of patience, and so we must have plans that enable us to respond.
Leaders often face challenges for which we are unprepared. Having the patience to respond deliberately may cause others to attack us. Leadership means having the patience to endure.
Doug Moran’s firm, If You Will Lead, LLC, focuses on leadership development, executive coaching, and technology strategy. He has more than 25 years of leadership experience - from a complex enterprise of more than 16,000 employees to small teams of individual contributors. Doug speaks and writes on a variety of topics related to leadership and change, and he is the author of the forthcoming book, If You Will Lead: Enduring Wisdom for 21st-Century Leaders. E-mail him at [email protected].