A reminder of one of the basic ideas of Slow Leadership

It’s a while since I have written about the eight basic principles of the Slow Leadership approach to life and work. Over the next few weeks, I propose to revisit each one. Today, I will begin with the idea of “right tempo.”

There is a correct speed for every activity. Some you need to do quickly, many are much more effective if handled at a slower speed. Whatever tempo is the right one should be the tempo you choose. Getting the tempo wrong always ruins the result. That is why today’s obsession with speed is often so counter-productive: faster is not always better. There are times when it is very much worse.

If a piece of music is played too quickly or too slowly, the melody is spoiled. If a speaker talks too fast, the words become garbled. If too slow, the meaning is lost and the talk becomes boring. It’s no different for work. Rushing comes from habit and poor organization and often leads to lowered quality and a sense of incompleteness. When you’ve rushed something, you know you haven’t done it justice. Going too slowly is much less frequent, but usually results from procrastination, perfectionism, and bureaucratic not-picking.

Choosing the right tempo is an important leadership skill. Good leaders know when to move fast and when to wait on events. By rushing when it’s inappropriate, poor leaders make bad decisions and unforced errors. By procrastinating when they need to act right away, they miss important opportunities.

Which speed is the right one?

Consider these points to help you get the tempo right:

  • Do you want a quick fix, a purely conventional answer, an answer that works, or one that is innovative? The difference in the outcome probably lies in the time you allow yourself to find that solution.
  • What is causing you to feel you must hurry? Is there a genuine reason? Is it just habit? If you do not need to hurry, why do so?
  • If others are becoming impatient, can you understand why? It may be that you are falling into the traps of perfectionism or procrastination. If so, speed up. But if they are simply impatient out of habit, consider that they will never accept their haste as an excuse for any mistakes that you make as a result.
  • Never equate speed with excellence. Faster is only better if whatever it is is being judged purely on speed. A fast car that constantly breaks down may be far less desirable than a slower one that is reliable.
  • Speed is usually more about glamor than excellence. Do you want a flashy response (plus the risk that people will soon realize that it has little but glamor to recommend it) or one that will solve the problem fully?
  • Speed is rarely the only criterion for success. What else is required? Can you achieve the other criteria fully if you concentrate on speed alone?

Are there benefits to going more slowly?

Taking your time gives you the chance to reflect and consider a topic from many angles. When you rush through a task, you’re forced into a one-dimensional perspective. There’s no time to sit back and take different viewpoints. This is a severe disability. If you only allow yourself time to consider one way to approach an issue, how can you tell it’s the right way?

Today’s over-emphasis on so-called industry best practice is a direct result of unnecessary haste. Faced with continual pressure to decide instantly, leaders look for some way to offset the increased chances of making a poor choice and incurring blame for it. By turning to the most common and fashionable answers, they can claim what they did was what most people would have done, even if it turns out to be wholly unsuitable for their particular case. They sacrifice being right for feeling safe amongst a crowd.

What speed feels right?

You can often feel which speed is the right one, merely by paying attention. Some speeds intuitively produce a sense of excessive haste. Everything feels breathless and unstable at that tempo. Just as you instantly know if you are driving too fast for comfort, you will know if you are pushing your abilities beyond their natural limits.

In the same way, something done too slowly drags and loses all sense of forward momentum. It feels sluggish and heavy. You can sense that far too much detail is being inserted, or those involved are simply trying to avoid reaching some point that they are frightened of.

Slow Leadership doesn’t favor slowness for its own sake. In a world addicted to speed, we try to remind people that doing some tasks correctly always takes time. Sometimes you need to wait to see how events will turn out before reaching a firm decision.

Helping others learn always demands time and patience. So does working through difficult and complex choices. An organization that demands speed over accuracy is gambling with its money and its future. You may as well toss a coin.

Think about the right tempo for every task. When you find it, stick to it, regardless of the pressure to speed up. This is the first and most essential step to being in control of your life and work. Being a leader means setting out to control the way you use your time and the time of those who work for you, not letting external pressures control you. If you allow yourself to be rushed, you’ll quickly find yourself out of control, hurtling towards some future you never chose . . . and a place you don’t want to be.

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