“Ready, fire, aim. Do it! Make it happen! Action counts!” This call to action given by visionary Tom Peters in the 1980s might be the most ill-advised leadership guidance he offered. It suggests that any action is better than doing nothing, and it has led to celebrating too many impulsive and unwise endeavors. Buy that house or the latest crypto! Fire those employees! Act before the window closes! Move fast before others do it! What makes matters worse is that those who employ action-first leadership style often refuse to ever change course or admit they were wrong. After all, it is presumed, a great leader or successful investor gets ahead of the pack by moving first and doesn’t look back or second-guess. This all makes sense to observers who call upon selection bias, seeking out examples where impulsive actions succeeded. They honor such acts and quickly forget those that didn’t work out.
Restraint and reflection have less pedigree and prestige. Indeed, not acting is often labelled as passivity; those who take time to reflect are considered procrastinators; and waiting to get it right, standing back to consider options or asking for help are often viewed as signs of timidity. Followers want their leaders to be infallible and know what to do, and they are uncomfortable when their leader is not taking decisive and confident action.
In truth, neither quick action nor considerable reflection singularly forms the optimal path. But it is time to consider the downside of the bias we have for quick action by leaders. Decisions that lead to fast action are often viewed as astute intuitions based on a sixth sense. A great leader is imagined to have a nose for opportunity not available to others and the courage to stick with their decisions even amid criticism or initial negative outcomes.
Looking deeper into the bias for fast action, what actually spurs these fast bets? Too often it is not an intuition or opportunity that others do not see, but an inner response to anxiety and pressure building up inside the leader. This is exacerbated by the fact that we are living in an anxious time that has aptly been labelled VUCA—Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity—an environment of constant, unpredictable change that is now the norm in the business, political and environmental worlds. But doing the first thing that comes to mind is not the best way forward. Rather, innovative, more agile and pragmatic processes are the keys to effective action in the VUCA world.
Quick action is a vestige of the ancient fight/flight response to danger that is baked into our neural networks. Under pressure, leaders can’t sit still, they have to do something. So they act quickly on their first well-intended intuition, earning cheers from their followers. Having a good intention and caring about an issue are assumed to guarantee that the action will have a positive outcome. But an intention is not a strategy, and action in itself does not guarantee good results.
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Another liability of quick action is that it neglects an important aspect of emotional intelligence: the ability to sense and understand the impact of an outcome on others. The need for leaders to show fast results can blind them to how others will react. For example, taking an action without informing colleagues about its intention or why it was done can lead to a lack of trust, hesitation, undermining and pushback at a time when responsive commitment is needed. Taking the time to find out and consider what others will think is a powerful element of leadership decision-making. Actions that are hastily taken without exploring their impact on others can spark unexpected backlash and diminished trust.
Leaders understandably feel pressure to trust their gut and act to solve complex problems. Nonetheless, fast but uninformed actions have unexpected consequences that cannot be anticipated even by the most intuitive. They can set off a chain reaction of other impulsive actions that can be disastrous. Think about unilateral attempts to address huge problems like homelessness, racism, crime, inflation, poverty or climate change. Can one quick solution really impact a complex situation, as politicians would like us to believe? Fast action implies that problems are simple and that one “solution” will resolve them. Such a belief falls short in a world where problems have multiple causes and effects. And when there is not one cause, one action in itself is unlikely to make a significant difference.
But what about the other extreme—not acting? That can be problematic as well. One can deny or avoid facing an issue, thinking it will go away or that this is not the time to do anything or that the issue is too complicated to even consider doing anything. There is also the danger of overanalyzing—analysis paralysis—where the leader requests more and more information to diminish their anxiety about making a mistake. Inaction, avoidance or procrastination are all to be rightfully rejected.
Neurology research looks at how people can access different neural pathways for different actions. Quick action comes from ancient wiring that is biased toward an urgent, primitive need for protection from predators, whereas the ability to analyze, consider options and select the best strategy comes from later development. People who rely on only one aspect of their neural system are like those who choose to work with only one hand. It makes no sense. Why ignore a basic tool?
The challenge today’s leaders face is to balance timely action with thoughtful reflection. Here are some questions and suggestions for a leader to consider before acting:
- Take a breath and sleep on it. Before doing anything impactful, take the necessary time to reflect on it first. Think of everything you might be missing.
- Ask yourself five why’s. When you are contemplating a potential action, ask yourself “why” you would be doing it. Then ask yourself the same question about your answer, to lead you deeper into understanding your motivation. After the fifth why, you will have uncovered a greater awareness of what makes you tick and what actions are truly needed.
- Consider what might happen if you do nothing or decide to wait. Ask yourself, what is your hurry? What if you don’t do this, or what if you wait? It is often the case that if you consider an action minus the sense of urgency, this will allow you to conduct a proper due diligence before moving forward.
- Define your goals and the outcome you would like to see. A thoughtful action has an intended outcome. In a VUCA world, actions have many reverberations, and you should consider each decision in light of what you want to see happen and how it relates to clear goals.
- Ask for help. It is wise to test your ideas by sharing them with colleagues whom you respect and trust. And it helps to get advice not only from your coworkers but also from those outside your organization (while maintaining confidentiality). As a leader, you might feel anxious about asking for input from others, fearing this will expose your doubts or show that there is something you do not already know. It helps to remember that no action is foolproof, and the fast actor is often the fool. It is courageous to ask for help.
Today’s mounting crises put extra pressure on organizational leaders to act, but action is not the best answer when it is done too fast or without taking time to look at systemic consequences within and beyond the organization. Now is the time to emphasize that informed reflection and listening to others are significant markers of leadership. The Long Ranger is a relic of an ancient era. A leader should be ready to act, but not without thoughtful consideration of a problem and all its possible solutions.