Becoming a More Patient Leader

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Executive Summary

When you’re listing the traits of a great leader, patience probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But a new survey by a professor at Georgia Tech reveals that when leaders demonstrate it, it significantly boosts their reports’ creativity, collaboration, and productivity. In a world that demands agility and quick results, how can managers develop this essential quality? By redefining the meaning of speed, like the Navy SEALs, who are paradoxically both methodical and patient in planning and executing their time sensitive missions; and by practicing gratitude, which research shows lowers stress and helps people delay gratification.

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Leading effectively — especially during a crisis — takes patience. If you can’t retain your composure in the face of frustration or adversity, you won’t be able to keep others calm. When your direct reports show signs of strain, you need to support them, not get irritated. Solutions to new challenges usually take time to put into practice. However, in my work teaching and coaching high-potential leaders, I have seen that many just don’t have patience and don’t know how to find it. They want quick fixes and can’t wait for strategies to take hold. This tendency is only reinforced by our agile digital work world, which seems to prize hyperspeed.

To learn more about how patience affects a leader’s influence on direct reports during challenging times, I surveyed 578 full-time U.S. working professionals from a wide range of industries during the recent Covid-19 lockdown. Their average age was 39, most were college graduates, and more than half were in managerial roles themselves. I asked about their immediate supervisor’s leadership behaviors and level of patience and had them self-report their own levels of creativity, productivity, and collaboration. Their responses revealed that patience had a powerful effect: When leaders demonstrated it (meaning their employees’ ratings put them in the highest quartile), their reports’ self-reported creativity and collaboration increased by an average of 16% and their productivity by 13%.

I then decided to look at the impact patience had on different types of leadership behavior. Academic research traditionally breaks leadership down into two basic sets of behaviors – task-oriented and relationship-oriented. The best leaders consistently strike a balance between the two. I like to describe the most effective task-oriented behavior as futurist and the most effective relationship-oriented behavior as facilitator. Futurists create a powerful vision and outline the metrics needed to realize it. Facilitators foster collaboration and empower a team to reach a solution. The approaches are complementary, not mutually exclusive. But did patience affect them equally?

What I discovered was that patience made both approaches significantly more effective, though it increased collaboration and creativity an average of 6% more in concert with futurist behavior than in concert with facilitator behavior. The ability of patience to amplify the two approaches makes a lot of sense when you think about it. A futurist needs patience when explaining her vision to folks that may or may not “get it” right away or have doubts about the vision’s viability. A facilitator needs patience with a group’s collaborative process when members aren’t working well together or are taking longer than expected to come up with a solution.

How can leaders boost their patience?

If you want to build your patience, you need to recognize when it might be tested the most. If you know a challenge is coming, you can be more mindful about increasing your efforts to stay calm. A good way to manage the pressure you feel from the clock ticking is to reframe how you perceive time. Here are some helpful strategies:

Redefine the meaning of speed. The U.S. Navy SEALs are known for their saying “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” These rapid-response special forces teams are paradoxically methodical and patient in both planning and executing their time-critical missions. They have learned over 60 years of operating in crisis situations that working at a slow and smooth pace reduces mistakes and re-dos and in the end speeds up the mission. In short, they have learned that leaders shouldn’t “confuse operational speed (moving quickly) with strategic speed (reducing the time it takes to deliver value).” And this of course means that leaders need to clearly define what delivering value means from the start.

Thank your way to patience. Gratitude has powerful effects on a wide range of our attitudes and behaviors. For example, keeping a journal about things you are thankful for increases generosity with others and lowers stress. It is no wonder then that gratitude may also positively spill over to our ability to demonstrate patience. Research in experimental psychology has found when people feel more grateful, they are better at delaying gratification and are more patient.

In the middle of a crisis, it may be hard to feel grateful. However, as you practice gratitude – perhaps by keeping a journal or just by being mindful of the progress made by others – you may find hidden opportunities for thankfulness. Then, when you know something will trigger your impatience, you can take a moment to reflect on what is going well and what you’ve learned or have the potential to learn from the crisis.

The bottom line is, effective leadership behaviors are enhanced by a show of  patience. Engage patiently and you will see increases in your reports’ creativity, productivity, and collaboration. Rush and, sadly, you won’t see many benefits.



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