This is urgent. We must be patient
by Stefan Stern

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In an “always on”, digital age, the deadline – it so often seems – is now. Churchill famously called for “action this day”. Today’s demand is for “action this minute”. Why have you not replied to my email? Have you seen this tweet? What’s been happening to the S&P 500 in the last few minutes, or seconds?

For many crisis management has become a default setting, and the short term has got even shorter. But paradoxically, this is precisely how to bring the next crisis closer.

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In the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, different leaders have adopted their own approach to tackling this challenge. Urgent action has been required. But the “false urgency” – proud boasts, unlikely claims, theatrical pronouncements – chosen by some leaders has proven confusing and counterproductive. Others, though, have displayed a more sustained and systematic approach. They have taken decisive action but also measured their results, altered their response according to the data and focused on long term solutions.

These leaders have displayed what Prof John Kotter has called “urgent patience”. This too sounds paradoxical, but Kotter defines it precisely: “It means acting each day with a sense of urgency but having a realistic view of time. It means recognising that five years may be needed to attain important and ambitious goals, and yet coming to work each day committed to finding every opportunity to make progress toward those goals.”

In business, urgent patience provides an antidote to the unthinking pursuit of “maximising shareholder value”, a false god which can also encourage ultra short-term behaviour and ultimately value-destroying choices. Leaders should teach their shareholders to be patient. Real and lasting value will not usually be created quickly. And the idea of sustainable growth implies an acknowledgement that rushing to generate large profits can end in failure.

In the past year there has been some excitement that the Business Roundtable in the US, as well as some leading voices at the World Economic Forum in Davos, have embraced the concept of stakeholders, in contrast to a more narrow focus on shareholders. They reminded me of Monsieur Jourdain, Molière’s “Bourgeois Gentilhomme”, who learns to his delight that he has been speaking in prose all his life. (Will Hutton’s “The State We’re In”, which promoted a stakeholder approach to business, was first published in 1995.)

But let us embrace even a belated conversion, if that is what it is, to a more balanced, urgent yet patient ethos in the matter of leading businesses. Urgent patience can also help us in the goal to promote “leadership everywhere”. Because it is the support and approval of our peers at work that can cement lasting improvements and competitive advantage. Particularly in the time of Covid, we want our workforces to feel the urgency of the moment, while displaying the patience that is needed to achieve wider and deeper goals in the longer term. We must make haste slowly – or “festina lente”, as the Romans used to say.

About the Author:
Stefan Stern is the author (with Prof Cary Cooper) of “Myths of Management: what people get wrong about being the boss” , and also of “How To Be A Better Leader”. He is Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, City, University of London, and a former Financial Times columnist

This article is one in the Drucker Forum “shape the debate” series relating to the 12th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “Leadership Everywhere” taking place on October 29 & 30, 2020 in Vienna, Austria.
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