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Create Space for Leadership

For my MBA many years ago, I studied hundreds of leadership books. I interviewed dozens of leadership experts and senior business executives across the globe. One conclusion: The expectation of leadership is a common, persistent human theme.

Throughout history whenever people gather together, an unwritten contract exists between leaders and their followers. This social agreement remains as valid today in an organizational context as in village life hundreds of years ago.

Why so?

Maybe because at its core, leadership exists when a centralized figure mobilizes a group of people—followers—around a common purpose. In exchange, followers relinquish power. Their trust instead, is instilled in the leader to navigate a complex, often dangerous world to provide safety, security and ultimately, a better future.

As such, great leaders have two primary roles: to identify and anticipate future needs; and to develop and mobilize the organization to meet them. Accomplishing these responsibilities leads to a sustained legacy of success that serves the organization. But both roles require time.

A great leader, however, is not the same thing as a great manager. Leadership is future-oriented and people-dependent, while management relates to solving real-time tactical challenges. But ironically, it is because of successful management behaviors that people tend to get promoted into leadership positions.

And herein lies a common problem. In over a decade of coaching global executives, as well as in my own experience as a Chief Executive, I have often revisited the following dilemma:

How do I create the time and space to think?

It is ironic that many successful and powerful people repeat the familiar refrain that their time is not their own. It is understandable. In fast-paced, time-starved environments where executives are typically rewarded and recognized by their ability to get things done, creating space to reflect can be difficult. And, not just on a physical level. Since many executives judge—and consider themselves judged—by the efficiency and effectiveness of their calendar, the psychological switch to creating more space can be challenging.

Leveraging the team involves letting go of certain tasks, releasing control and trusting others. In a culture that values busyness, the concept of leaving gaps open for uninterrupted thought can feel unfamiliar. But for managers to become great leaders, deep reflection is critical. Deliberate contemplation is the root of strategic intent, and it requires time and space.

Great leaders need to intentionally create the time and space to consider:

What are tomorrow’s needs? How will we meet them?

As a result, great leaders will then have the freedom to:

  • Move beyond task-orientated thinking towards predicting future needs

  • Spend more time building relationships

  • Anticipate threats

  • Understand the wider business environment

  • Determine solutions for future needs

  • Build out organizational capabilities

  • Develop new products and services

Once reflection time is built into the schedule, leaders need to protect it. Without this, real-time tactical challenges will again dominate and great leadership will be short-lived.

If your time is not your own, then how will you create the space to make room for leadership?

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