It‘s that time of year when we all frantically scurry to get our UK tax returns in on time. Like countless others I had to contact Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs office with a last minute query, but they were inundated with calls and so were unable to deal with my non-urgent call. Frustratingly, I knew I had to do this some months ago but every year I leave it until the last minute!
Just as we all procrastinate in our day-to-day lives, we as leaders often delay or defer making decisions and taking action when we know that there is something that needs to be done. But is this necessarily a bad thing?
Thomas Jefferson famously warned us that we should never put off for tomorrow, what we can do today. Similarly, when Abraham Lincoln led the movement to abolish slavery in the US he insisted that the leaders must not escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today. So why do we as leaders procrastinate? Is it a weakness or strength? Does it thwart our achievements, or is it a necessary precursor to achieving results?
There are countless psychological and situational factors that cause leaders to delay doing things or making decisions. We often ascribe the rationale for this to quite practical, transactional things such as a lack of time or not having enough information. The psychologist and author Denis Waitley helpfully reminds us that “time is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day”.
But the underlying causes of procrastination are much more complex than issues such as time, information or task might imply. They frequently reflect our desire to control things and our inability to predict how we might feel after we have made a decision or taken action. Paradoxically, we fear both success and failure resulting from our actions, invoking feelings of guilt, inadequacy and stress. Furthermore, by putting things off, we can actually make matters worse by potentially losing an opportunity or a productivity gain.
Procrastination can be particularly testing for heroic style leaders who believe that their role requires them to be the wise, all-knowing decider of everything. Even so, they too procrastinate but may disguise their avoidance of something by busily doing other things claiming them to be more important, relevant or pressing. Alternatively, they may act impulsively on a difficult or unpleasant task or decision, substantiating this with the opinion that it’s better to do something rather than nothing.
Some argue that one of the problems with more contemporary leaders is that they do not make rapid decisions and that this shows weakness and threatens their position as a leader. I do not subscribe to this notion. I believe active procrastination can be a strength when it is done knowingly and for good reason.
There are two good reasons why we as leaders might delay decision making. The first stems from the fact that we care. We care about the potential consequences of our decisions and actions and the impact of these on others. We care about exercising our leadership responsibility wisely.
The second motive for us as leaders to delay a decision or action is connected to our desire for collaboration. The intention of this is to achieve a shared understanding and engagement in the issues and options before us. This is not derived from fear of making a decision. It is a knowledgeable and deliberate attempt to share problems, create buy-in and achieve sustainable results. I consider this to signify strong, not weak, leadership. It shows a high level of emotional intelligence and the ability to empathetically consider the effect of our decisions on those that we serve. Rather than being a display of weakness, this behaviour shows authentic empathy and promotes trust and engagement.
So the real challenge for contemporary leaders is to know when to show restraint in impulsive or solitary decision making which can create dependency and disengagement. Great leaders are not afraid to show humility and, in the right situation, they will delay making a decision to achieve genuine collaboration, cooperation and engagement before responding. They do this in the knowledge that several brains are better than one, and a legitimate belief that a sustainable outcome is much more likely through collaboration than that which can be achieved by any single leader.
So, to overcome procrastination of simple tasks – such as completing our tax return – requires either improving our time-management skills or exercising more self-discipline and just getting on with it! However, the situation is very different for leaders of multifaceted organisations. The difficult decisions that leaders are required to make can potentially affect the lives of many. In these circumstances the real leadership skill lies in understanding when to make a decision quickly, and when to actively procrastinate to achieve a better more sustainable outcome.