Can't (wait to) stop
The case for sustainable leadership choices
Last week I was invited to join GCI Health’s North America leadership offsite to talk about a more sustainable way to lead. Here are the notes from our session, including a STOP practice that is, in fact, a very good place to start.
It’s never been harder to be a leader—more is being asked of you than ever before. And in this time of tremendous change, complexity and uncertainty, how you lead makes all the difference.
But many of the leaders I coach are finding their usual ways of working aren’t working so well anymore: Grinding nonstop, reacting immediately to incoming requests, putting out fires, managing every aspect of their team’s work...
This is what we think leadership is. This is how the leaders we grew up under did it. It’s how we were trained and rewarded and promoted. We wear our busyness as a badge of honor and chalk it up to “agency life.” We take for granted that this is how things get done. It is part of our programming, our default mode, our autopilot.
But it’s not sustainable.
We are running up against the limit of business-as-usual leadership now: Our teams are experiencing widespread fatigue, work quality is slipping, people are disengaged, burning out and leaving their jobs in record numbers.
There’s another issue with the old way: It doesn’t scale. When we as leaders are in the weeds, making every decision, trying to control every outcome, we think we’re being quick and efficient but we actually have less impact.
Think about it: A team member comes to you with a problem. You solve the problem for them. Everyone moves on. The ROI ratio for your time and energy is 1:1.
Now, let’s say instead of snapping into fix-it mode, you choose to ask this person a few questions that help them generate their own possible solutions. And let’s say that person then engages their team in trying out a few of these possibilities to determine for themselves what works.
For one thing, the ultimate solution will probably be smarter than the one you would have offered on the spot. Also, your team is more likely to embrace the solution if they’re involved with developing it. But most importantly, your people are learning, growing and taking responsibility for the situation at hand. The ROI for your time is now 4:1 or greater. This is how sustainable leadership—not doing everything ourselves, under the gun—yields impact at scale.
I for one am grateful for this moment, which invites us to acknowledge issues we’ve long avoided, and it offers us a chance to do things differently. To switch out of autopilot mode and choose to lead in a more sustainable, scalable way.
The good news is that you don’t have to take drastic measures like quitting your job or moving across the country to work more sustainably. You don’t have to completely disengage from your team to scale your leadership—quite the contrary.
The secret to sustainable leadership is in the tiny choices we make on a moment-to-moment basis as we go about our work.
But disrupting our autopilot to make new choices is hard. It’s easy to fall into old patterns. That is why my coaching centers around a little thing called mindfulness.
There’s nothing magical or mystical about mindfulness—it’s simply the opposite of mindlessness: Paying attention to what’s happening right now with openness and curiosity.
[We paused here to do a bit of practice: Everyone had a beverage with them, so we practiced taking slow, mindful sips of water/coffee/tea and focusing our attention closely on the details of the experience: color, aroma, flavor, temperature and our internal response to the act of drinking. I invited the leaders to slow down and be intentional about how they drank.]
One of my favorite arguments for the power of mindfulness comes from psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl:
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Mindfulness gives us more space to choose how we respond. How we engage. How we lead.
Let’s talk about how to bring mindfulness into our everyday. You don’t have to move through life at a snail’s pace, simply learn to STOP when you need to. STOP is a micro-meditation that allows us to disrupt our autopilot in the moment—particularly in stressful or sensitive moments—and choose how we proceed:
When we have the space to choose, we proceed more intentionally and our outcomes look different, from the micro (e.g., not hitting send on that angry email, or asking a question instead of jumping to a conclusion) to the macro (e.g., pausing to reconsider a strategy that isn’t delivering expected results, choosing to delegate work we can do in our sleep to people who will grow as a result).
Less firefighting, more focus.
Less stress, more space.
More sustainable leadership.
I’ll leave you with this reminder: Sustainable leadership choices are not only in service of your personal wellness and professional performance—but yes, those too!—they enable the scalable success of your team and the work you take on together.
Reflect back on last week: What is one moment when you wish you’d STOPped to give yourself the space to choose your response? What choice do you wish you’d made in that moment?
Look to the week ahead: What meeting or project will offer you a good opportunity to practice STOP? What sustainable and scalable choices do you want to make? Make a plan or create a reminder like a well-placed post-it note.
One of my favorite ways to use STOP is when I’m facilitating team workshops: When they start to swirl into negative or unhelpful territory, anyone in the room can call a “STOP” and everyone takes a moment together to pause, take a breath and observe their experience before proceeding.
How will you use STOP to make more sustainable choices this week? I’d love to hear from you in the comments: