The more I think about leadership, the more I realize that one of the most essential elements is timing. Smart leaders, the best of leaders, have a sense of timing that is parallels an athlete or a ballerina. They have a sense of when to act and when to hold back. That, of course, is no easy trick.
The moment you lose your sense of timing your leadership is greatly handicapped, if not doomed.
Think of any hard leadership decision and your quickly realize that the essential ingredient is timing. The quality and the success of the decision is often impacted by the selection of the right moment.
A classic example is Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of emancipation. As a number of authors have pointed out Lincoln waited until the moment was just right.
The question for any leader is: When is the right moment?
It’s someplace a few steps before the tipping point. Right before the point where everyone sees the direction clearly. It’s the moment before a decision no longer has to be made and where leadership, certainly courageous leadership, is an afterthought.
As they say when the horses are out of the barn it’s too late to climb on board. All you can do is get caught up in the momentum. Leaders therefore have to have a sense of where history is moving. In that sense they must avoid the focal, group-think, short-term, instinct that often negates getting ahead of the crowd. When we talk about a failure of vision or a failure of courage, we are differentiating between those leaders who anticipate history versus those leaders who react to history.
Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in Tel Aviv and the other week I had an occasion to read an article by Zvi Bar’el in the Haaretz about the importance of ceasing the moment and dealing with the aging president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, in order to pursue regional peace.
The premise of the piece was that Mubarak may soon pass on and no one really knows what direction Egypt will take from that point on. There is a tendency in the Middle East to deal mostly with the present. Certainly within the current Israeli government there is focus on the present and the short-term. But Mubarak isn’t immortal and things move on. The challenge always is: when should I act? Do you deal with the devil you know or the saint you hope will come?
I sometimes think of the Middle East in the 80s or even the 90s versus the Middle East of today. In the context of today’s radical Palestinian groups, the ones in the past look a lot more moderate. The current right of center government in Israel makes the father of right leaning Israeli nationalism, Menachem Begin, look like a left of center moderate.
Leaders in the Middle East are failing to cease the moment given the fact that things can get a lot worse rather than a lot better. The entire middle east seems to be caught in the short-term myopic mindset reminiscent of the automobile industry in the United States. Seeing what’s under their nose, being accountable to only short term interests, and failing to have the courage to look around the bend.
Point in fact: a few of them have shown a sense of historical timing.
Of course then there is Anwar El Sadat. He would have made one heck of a CEO.
Picture Credit: Amanda Woodward