Let me tell you a story that happened 25 years ago. I was 10 years old.
At the school my mom founded, the annual event was about to start, and hundreds of parents would gather there in a few hours. The event had to be spectacular. The venue was still messy from the previous day’s rehearsal, there was paper strewn everywhere. No one from the housekeeping team was in sight. My impeccably dressed mother picked up the broom and started sweeping. I followed her lead and soon more staff joined in.
That was my first leadership lesson on ‘Leading from the front and acting immediately on a problem’.
When I moved to a leadership role at work, this lesson came in handy. Whenever I’d see a problem that had to be fixed, I’d jump right in, lead from the front and make sure it gets fixed. It could be a machine that was not working, a team not delivering results, or a painfully delayed regulatory permission stuck in bureaucracy. Act now, lead from the front was my only mantra.
It became my Maslow’s hammer. I started to rely on this hammer and treat every problem as if it were a nail. The hammer served me well. Over the last six years, as a business owner it helped me transform our organization into one of the best educational institutions in the country. But there was a thought that always plagued me -- If I were in a car crash, what would happen to the organization? to all the great work that we did so far? to all the progress we made?
My hammer may cause more damage than good. It dawned on me that I needed a different strategy. One that can build leadership capacity. This came to me when I was least expecting it-- while watching Kung Fu Panda for the third time! I discovered the concept of ‘deliberate inaction’. Master Shifu deliberately in-acts and lets his students tackle the big bad Tai Lung, before he jumps in.
Lemme try defining it. Deliberate inaction is knowing that your ship is sailing off course, and yet you decide to not do anything about it. Almost until it hits an iceberg. There is a certain price to pay when building leadership capacity at that level. But how else would the second officer learn to manage a crisis if the captain was leading from the front all the time? It's like a tax you need to pay to grow.
For someone like me, the woman with a hammer, practicing deliberate inaction has been very challenging. I am sure there are more like me out there that can't wrap their heads around it. I know my mother still can't!
So for her and for others, I’m sharing a method that is working well for me--I close my eyes, simulate various things that could go wrong at work and live through those in my mind and practice not to scratch the itch.
In real life, I still slip off, old habits die hard. But when I remember my role is to build confidence in my team, I’m willing to pay the price to get there. And break the hammer that has served me so well all these years!
Here's a question for you.
Who are some people that you know from movies, books and real-life that use the power of deliberate inaction? Help me meet them!