Monday, May 01, 2020

Why "Slow" Leadership?

Slow Leadership opposes the pressure for homogeneity in leadership, especially the urge to equate leadership purely with getting short-term results. That's the equivalent of defining diet as fast food—an endless supply of burgers, fries and sodas—just because that type of meal is quick, simple and cheap. Leadership is far more than producing results in short order. Leadership is the art of finding the right way forward, not just for today but for as far ahead as you can reasonably see. It's not an activity that can be reduced to simplistic rules-of-thumb and numbered lists of "to-dos." There's no Leadership 101 to cover all normal situations; no Leadership-by-Numbers kit you can buy via the Internet.

Other "Slow" Movements

The Slow Food movement links pleasure and food with awareness and responsibility, defends diversity in the food supply, aims to spread the education of taste, and link producers of excellent foods to consumers through events and initiatives. This is an excellent analogy for Slow Leadership. Leadership too can give enormous pleasure and satisfaction, when done well. It also depends on awareness and responsibility: awareness of the reality of the whole situation, now and in the future; and accepting responsibility for making the best possible decisions, not just acceptable or conventional ones. That's why it's sometimes slow: it takes time to consider information fully, think through the options and consequences, and make certain nothing has been missed you could have known about. You don't expect a gourmet meal to be thrown together in five minutes. Why should you expect a decision affecting the future of a business, its employees and customers to be made a the drop of a hat?

Slow Food also spawned Città Slow, a campaign to recognize cities where living is good and the pace of life matches human needs. Their aim is to draw attention to quality of life issues in urban environments. They look for “towns rich in theatres, squares, cafes, workshops, restaurants and spiritual places, towns with untouched landscapes…where people are still able to recognize the slow course of the seasons…" (from Cittàslow Manifesto).

Slow Leadership too is focused on improving the quality of life for everyone involved in organizations. People spend so much of their waking lives in the workplace it surely ought to recognize the needs of the whole person, even if its primary focus will always be economic. The organizational equivalents of “…towns rich in theatres, squares, cafes, workshops, restaurants and spiritual places…" include time to think, discuss, debate, ponder and seek those spurs to creativity that turn work from drudgery to inspiration. Work is a social activity; an arena of life where relationships are fundamental to success. Surely in a civilized world we should seek to extend those relationships to enhance our lives, not restrict them to the most simplistic levels of command and control?

If we are to claim any sense of progress, our working lives must include ways to meet our economic goals without sacrificing our brains, our lives or our pleasures. Why can't people work in easy and pleasant ways? Why must success be arduous—or more arduous that it has to be? The Romans had a saying: festina lente. It means "hurry slowly." Haste breeds carelessness, cutting corners and making mistakes; all of which usually mean the project takes longer—and contains more problems—than it need have. It's the leader's job to set the pace. That often means slowing people down to make sure jobs are done right first time, not standing behind people with a whip to drive them headlong into folly.

The Ideal of Progress

Research from the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis shows too much change leads to overworked, cynical and slapdash employees. Professor Judi McLean Parks said: "With overworked employees, and employees that endure multiple change initiatives, the workers get cynical. Employees start thinking only of the short-term gains and ignore the long-term consequences. Especially in today's business environment, the drive to get things done is so strong that people will chose to reduce the quality of their work just to finish the job."

Overwork, cynical and slapdash workers, burned-out leaders, wrecked families and work/life balance in tatters: today's "conventional" organization is more like scenes from a movie about the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition than a 21st-century understanding of how best to bring people together to produce the goods and services we all need. Of course there have been as many—maybe more—examples of corporate greed, tyranny and dishonesty in the past as in recent years. That's hardly reassuring. To say today's industrial and commercial leaders are no worse than their Victorian grandfathers suggests for all our technological progress over the last century there hasn't been any progress in improving people's working lives.

In his book In Praise of Slowness : Challenging the Cult of Speed, Carl Honoré makes the point that seeking "slow" is not a rejection of speed itself. Travel by jet is better than spending weeks in a covered wagon trekking slowly across the United States; a car is usually more convenient, though less ecologically friendly and less fun, than riding a horse. The problem is today's obsession with going faster regardless of anything else.

When Speed Is Wrong

Some things in life should not be speeded up. The price we're paying for our pathological urge to go faster, run harder and drive ourselves beyond our limits is too great.

Slow Leadership aims always to be rational, in the sense that it is reasoned, considered and consistent with the reality of the situation. Too much leadership today is irrational. It's based on knee-jerk reactions, emotional responses, instant judgments and quick-fix solutions that ignore or avoid the real issues. Why? Because there's no time to do better and no reward for anything beyond "making the numbers" this month or this quarter. Taking time to consider the past and present is a prerequisite for any rational approach to leadership. If you don't know clearly where you are now and how you arrived there, you can't possibly judge which path is most likely to take you somewhere you would rather be.

Today's leaders are over-stretched, over-burdened and over-concerned with instant gratification of the demands of the financial markets. In organizational life, as elsewhere, you get what you reward. One reason why high-profile CEOs demand such outrageous packages of rewards is their recognition that life as a CEO is nasty, brutish and short. They grab all they can in the knowledge they'll likely fall from grace in less than two years. Few humans can match the demands they face from the markets for longer — if only because all their short-cuts and quick-fix decisions are bound to produce a slew of negative results in that time or less. Corporate "sins" find you out as surely as any others.

Slow Leadership is a movement aimed at finding and publicizing ways to beat this dysfunctional trend towards greater material wealth with a poorer quality of working life attached as a non-optional extra. I say movement, because later this year we'll be launching a program you'll be able to join to advance the aims of Slow Leadership in your own workplace, with newsletters, promotional materials, training programs and other ways to spread the word and help educate people that being effective isn't the same as being uncivilized.

Until then, please keep reading this blog and adding your comments.

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Rabbit said...

This movement you speak of sounds awesome. I'd join in a heart beat!

Reveal more? :)

10:53 PM  

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