Steve Harvey, the famous African-American comedian, tells the story of his grandmother’s wisdom when an incident occurred in her backyard. She was washing bedsheets and had just put them out to dry in the sun (this was in the days before washing machines and dryers were commonplace) when a bird flying overhead defecated and a large blob of faeces landed right in the middle of one of the damp bedsheets. Steve was horrified and went running to his grandmother to tell her about the incident and offered to wipe the disgusting faeces off the sheet. “No, my dear”, the grandmother replied. “If you wipe it off now it will create a large smear on the sheet. Let it go. The sun will dry the sheet and the shit together and when both are dry, the shit will fall off without creating a smear on the sheet. Steve learned a lesson that day that can be applied in leadership – the reaction to an action does not have to be equal, opposite, or immediate.
The ultimate leader – God – uses a parable to illustrate this in the bible. He describes a man who sowed good wheat seed in his farm, but while he slept an enemy came and sowed tares in between the wheat. After a while, as the grain sprouted, the tares became visible and the man’s servants came to him very upset and informed him that there was a problem. In their zeal, the servants offered to pluck the tares right away on the farm, but the man stopped them. He said that at this stage of their growth, they are hard to tell apart and the servants would risk pulling good wheat as they pulled the tares. He instructed them to wait until when the wheat was fully grown and ready to be harvested, by which time it would be easy to tell them apart. Then the harvesters would pull only the visible wheat, store it in a barn, and later then pull the tares and burn them.
The larger the organization that you lead, the more that timing becomes important in your decision-making. Like the difference between captaining a canoe versus captaining an ocean liner, leading large organizations requires an understanding of and the ability to leverage timing that goes unnoticeable when the organization is small. Mistakes made when piloting a small boat may be easily fixed…tilting the boat too far forward or moving into the wake of another boat can be easily corrected without much fanfare. However, with large ocean liners, the mistakes are magnified and harder to correct. The Captain of the Titanic knew at least three hours before his boat sank that the boat was doomed to sink. The actions he should have taken between 6 PM and 9 PM on 14 April 1912 (ie, slow the ship down and turn in a direction away from the icebergs) were not taken until 11:35 PM. By 11:40 PM, the ship hit the iceberg, and the game was over, even though the Titanic did not sink until 2:30 AM.
Our role as leaders can sometimes appear to be contradictory. We are expected to be ahead of the curve, anticipating the changes in the marketplace and in the needs of our customers/constituencies. At the same time, we are expected to be patient in reacting to situations, especially situations that involve people and emotions. What is a leader to do? How do you know when to act and when to wait? How do you know when to be patient and when to be urgent? How do you know when to render justice or when to have mercy?
The truth is that the answers are situation-dependent. Here are three tips that can help you make optimal decisions at the right time.
- Remember the long-term vision. It is so easy for objects that are close by to appear larger than they really are. In the midst of a situation, it is easy to be fooled into thinking that this situation is the end-all and be-all of your existence. When making decisions, you should always remind yourself about the long-term vision and make decisions that enhance the achievement of the long-term vision, or at worst, do not jeopardize the achievement of the long-term vision. When the servant was focusing on the destructiveness of the adversary and anxious to pluck out weeds, the owner of the farm was focused on the long-term vision of getting the maximum yield from his wheat. This enabled him to ignore the distractions of the day’s events or priorities and act in a manner that assured his yield was not prematurely plucked.
- Unless immediate action is absolutely necessary (and that is rare), sleep over it. Problems have a way of looking very different when they are first reported to you from how they look in the morning after you have received a good night of sleep. While there may be few exceptions, make every effort to ensure that significant decisions are taken only after you have had a night’s rest to think about them. One of the advantages of this strategy is that it ensures that you make decisions based on logic and less on emotion because a good night’s rest usually saps away emotion from a situation. Remember that emergencies do not need to be inherited; someone else’s emergency does not have to become yours. Remember Steven’s grandmother.
- Get some perspective; talk to your coach. A conversation with your coach will help you to gain perspective without judgment or agenda. The coach will not impose his views on you but will help you to think through your options and strategies in light of your long-term vision. This conversation is very useful in helping you to recognize additional options that may be available to you and does not carry the burden of an adviser or colleague whose opinion may be influenced by special interests.
Dear African Leader – as you make decisions on a daily basis, remember that the same decision made today may be suboptimal unless it is made next week. The act of plucking a mango from a tree is not inherently wrong unless it is done while the mango is green. The same act when done prematurely or too late can lead to hunger or ingestion of worms; however, when done at the right time leads to satisfaction and nutrition. Africa needs you to get your timing right.