The Virtue of Impatience

The old bromide is that patience is a virtue – and at times that is obviously true. Leaders do indeed need to listen well, avoid knee-jerk reactions, and seldom make decisions fueled by anger. But it is also true that patience should not be used as an excuse to mask an unwillingness to act.

If you are going to accomplish much in life, you will need to develop a driving impulse to act. Little vision or courage is required to consider an idea, but to act – now that is a different story. Good leaders have a propensity to act. Tom Peters has pointed out that when we scratch below the surface, exceptional leaders are often a bit angry – an anger born of a fierce determination to move the organization forward, coupled with a good amount of impatience. Strong leaders have a MindSet that is seldom satisfied with the status quo – they want reality to better match their vision…today! While others are still debating whether to bid on the house, such leaders are often moving furniture into their new home. They are seldom guilty of what MindSet calls GINEs: Good Ideas Never Executed.

Controlling Disorder

Are you familiar with the term entropy? It’s related to the second law of thermodynamics, and put simply, entropy is a measure of disorder. And here is the big insight: all closed systems (like your business or even your desktop) will naturally maximize entropy. In terms I can understand, the world around us naturally moves from order to disorder. Because entropy is a law of nature, to prevent disorder we will have to expend a substantial amount of energy.

Think of your home. The constant need for housekeeping and upkeep is tiresome, but necessary. Without it your home will become dusty and messy, insects and other creatures will eventually move in, equipment will breakdown, and ultimately it will decay and fall apart. That’s entropy in action. To reverse this predictable pattern of ever increasing disorder requires that we put significant energy (and money!) into the maintenance of our home.

My point? It is simply that when you patiently decide that your company or work team should maintain the status quo, you are not actually coasting. Nope – it will take a good amount of time and attention (energy) to just stay where you are. You may well just be treading water, but your arms will get almost just as tired doing so as if you were swimming toward a desired destination.

Which brings me back to the importance of having a propensity to act. You are going to be using energy anyway, so it is best to be moving toward something better – something worthwhile.

Many business leaders have far too much patience. They act as if problems will go away if ignored. They seem to think a good opportunity will come around again. They hope someone else will take the ball and run with it. Well – most of the time problems get worse, often opportunities don’t reappear, and as the leader you should be the one who picks up the ball and drives downfield.

Examples of where impatience rules

With some clients we want to holler: Good grief, stop being so darn patient!

  1. Peggy has been a pain in the rear to other employees for 3 years. How the heck do you walk by that situation every morning? Get it addressed. You can (a) fix Peggy, (b) isolate Peggy (“Yeah, you can keep working from home.”), or (c) fire Peggy – but for heaven’s sake do something! Never, and I mean never, lose sight of the importance of MindSet’s 4th leadership principle: Leaders protect the right of good staff to work with good staff. Being patient with staff members who either can’t perform or undermine the health of your culture is a leadership sin.
  2. You have been thinking about expanding your business into another area – and you have talked about it at several staff meetings for over a year. Unless you are waiting for more relevant and important information, you should have a propensity to act. And don’t fool yourself into thinking that when you avoid making a decision that you are putting off a decision. Nope, when you table the decision until next month, you are making a decision – a decision, at least for now, to do nothing. If you are not awaiting important, relevant information, make the call.
  3. I once hired a wonderful person to be in charge of fundraising. She was personable and constantly working on the next campaign or marketing idea. What she did not ever do is ask anyone to make a gift to the organization. After about a year (Yes, I was more than a bit slow here – being patient, right?), I became more aware of the growing disparity between the quality of our beautiful brochures and the dwindling number of donations. In what is still one of my more memorable visits with a staff member, our Director of Development told me through tearful eyes that, “I just can’t ask people for money!” What a great example of someone who loved to plan, but had zero propensity to act. I obviously made a change – helping this staff member to find a job better suited to her – for which I get absolutely zero credit as I should have done so at least six months sooner. (But better late than…well, you know.)

Bad things can happen to those who wait

Yes, bromide #2, “Good things come to those who wait,” is also sometimes true. But more often than not what happens is that those who wait are left in the dust. If you want to engender incredible success (for yourself or your company), here are three MindSets that reflect the thinking of successful leaders:

  • Get a clear vision of where you are going, communicate that destination to your trusted staff members, and then drive to get there. This applies to two equally important aspects of your leadership purview: Business planning and cultural expectations. Communicate a clear vision of (a) how your company is going to become a dominantly successful business and (b) the altitudinal and behavioral expectations for all employees. Then relentlessly drive toward those goals and uphold those standards.
  • Embrace intellectual struggle. Look – some decisions are just flat-out tough, so we have a natural tendency to avoid the hard work it takes to process the information and make a call. And here is a truism: you can’t act if you can’t make a decision. One suggestion I have is that you identify others in your work setting who are willing to struggle through the decision-making process long enough to find a pathway that can be taken. Many will engage on a topic for 10 minutes – or maybe even 30 – before their clickety-click tendencies will take over and they will be ready to move on to another topic or task. Oh, these colleagues will say they will be happy to come back to the topic at hand – maybe next week when they will again give it 10 minutes. Here is reality: significant intellectual breakthroughs are often found at the end of a protracted period of struggle and frustration. You should discipline yourself to stay at it until clarity is achieved – and you will be much more likely to do that if you have at your side at least a couple others who have the determination and focus to take on that intellectual struggle with you.
  • Anticipate that change will be resisted. This is something most every leader says they understand, but it nevertheless often serves to paralyze many leaders into inaction. To have a propensity to act will require that you become at least somewhat comfortable with conflict. People don’t like change; systems don’t like change. “That’s not the way we have always done it.” So what people and systems do is resist change – and that resistance usually manifests itself as conflict. Remind yourself that sometimes conflict is a sign of progress toward needed change. Some conflict – some friction – may well be good; it may mean that your change is getting some traction.

So if you are often complimented on your patience as a leader, don’t be so sure it is a badge of honor. It is quite possible that you will be well-served to be less patient, and more eager, to find greater success.