The Case for Unhurried Leadership

Imagine two versions of a boss. One is busy all day, bordering on frantic, moving at speed from one thing to the next. With seemingly no time to stop, they’re hard to pin down. When you do get to talk, it’s a quick transaction. No time for in-depth conversation.

The other is different. Like the first boss, they’ve got a lot on their plate, yet their demeanour suggests otherwise. They exude calmness. When you talk with them you feel like you’re the centre of their attention, and that they have all the time in the world. They get stuff done, but they’re not rushed.

Who would you rather work with? I know which one I’d choose.


Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy. 


Dale Carnegie.

Dale Carnegie was a well-known early 20th-century American writer and educator. I think his quote above pretty much sums up how we still think about achievement and the leadership that comes with it. ‘Go out and get busy’’. The vast majority of leaders and cultures I work with appear to embrace this ethos. Busyness is rewarded over idleness. Delivery trumps discovery. Movement eclipses stillness.

In our 21st-century context, this approach has real limitations. Our societies, our organisations and we as individuals face a myriad of complex problems. Yet complex problems aren’t usually solved by rushing headlong at them. They need a different sort of space and pace. One that can be shaped by a different sort of leadership.

Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing. 

Thomas Edison.

Thomas Edison’s life overlapped with Carnegie’s. As one of the world’s most prolific inventors, his counterpoint is interesting, right? It’s not about being busy per se. It’s about being thoughtful about how, where and when you put in the effort.

For us to truly lead effectively today, we need a little more Edison and a little less Carnegie. 

If you think about how you might tackle any complex issue, there are a few hard truths to acknowledge:

  • There’s no one right answer
  • No one person will hold all the answers
  • The issue will likely persist and evolve long after you’re gone
  • It’s a fool’s errand to try to determine a simple, linear cause and effect relationship 
  • Courses of action are best framed as experiments rather than sure-fire plans

What sort of leadership do we need here? A form that promotes clarity of thought, deep inquiry and real transparency. A form that brings people together to create a compelling shared purpose, to explore the issues, and then to design, run and learn from experiments. A form that doesn’t confuse pace with progress. A form that plays the long game. 

I call it unhurried leadership.

As I’ve written about before, unhurried is more a state of mind than a state of movement. It’s first about quieting the mind rather than quieting our calendars. If we can operate from a mindset of clarity and calmness, rather than fogginess and frenziedness, it sets the tone for so many things:

  • We see things as they are more clearly
  • We discern what’s important and what’s really not
  • We access greater creativity and connect more deeply to purpose
  • We infect others with our calmness and clarity

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

Lao Tzu.

How to become a more unhurried leader? This is a big topic. I have some thoughts, yet I first want to underline that our culture of busyness isn’t going to go away by all of us suddenly adopting better habits. We’re subject to systemic forces that need to be addressed with systemic solutions. Which is a topic for another post.

Yet there are definitely things you can do that can help you ‘let the snow globe settle’ and develop a little more zen while retaining the ability to make good things happen:

  1. Practice ‘attention out’: fMRI studies show that when we focus our attention, with compassion, on other people, we dial down the ‘me’ brain (the one that’s focused on all the stuff you have to do) and our mind quiets. Start by choosing to truly listen to another. After all, leadership is really about bringing out the best in others, right?
  1. Practice playing a longer game: the most effective leaders keep the long game in mind. When I’m clear on my larger sense of purpose, I can remind myself “it doesn’t all need to be done today”, and I immediately notice myself breathing out and becoming more present.
  1. Practice patience: find or create a mantra that helps you to slow down and allow things to unfold as they will. One that keeps me grounded is ‘slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.’ 
  1. Practice creating white space: one of the most unhurried CEO’s I know has a really empty calendar. He deliberately creates white space to be able to think, and to respond to his peoples’ needs. He knows that his primary role is to be there for his people, and to do that, he can’t be busy all the time.

Unhurried leadership. It’s an ideal that many of us yearn for yet few accomplish. What might you do to make your leadership just that little less hurried?

For more on this idea, check out:

Why We Hurry

Fresh Insights on Unhurried Productivity

Photo Credit Rodrigo Gonzalez

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