How Do You Combine Patience and Urgency?

Posted 04.20.2021

In my role as an executive coach, I’m used to being the one who asks the questions. I’ve often said that one of the biggest things I do as a coach is give my clients the space to think out loud. Asking the right questions is a great way to create that space. The normal roles were reversed a couple of weeks ago, though, when a senior executive client asked me the thought-provoking question, “How do you combine patience and urgency?”

The question came up because as an executive running a large sales organization, this leader is considering how to deploy a sales force that has been more or less stuck at home during the pandemic and, now that the vaccination regime is taking hold, is champing at the bit to get back out there. He loves their sense of urgency and wants to leverage it, but at the same time wants to make sure that he and everyone else is patient enough to pick the right ways and places to reengage. And, of course, this executive is not alone in his thought process. As the world comes back online, smart leaders are considering how to strike the right balance between patience and urgency.

As we thought through his question out loud together, we came up with a few distinctions about patience and urgency that he found useful. Since they were useful to him, they may be to you as well so here they are:

Patience and Urgency Are Not Mutually Exclusive: Since patience and urgency are pretty much the opposite of each other, it’s easy to think that they’d be mutually exclusive – that you can’t be both patient and urgent at the same time. My experience as a yogi tells me that’s not true. People who are new to yoga tend to focus first on an active approach in which you move from one pose to the next. This active style is known as yang. There’s another style, though, called yin which is more passive and in which you hold the poses longer to allow the muscles and ligaments to really open up. For people who like to keep moving, the yin style requires a lot of patience because you may be asked to hold a pose for several minutes. Some yin mixed in with the yang makes you a better yogi over the long run because in addition to helping you be more flexible, you learn more about your body and when and where you can apply more effort. You can think of yin as patience and yang as urgency. They can, and should, work together. It’s as true in business and leadership as it is in yoga and the rest of life.

Patience Prepares the Ground for Urgency: To act with urgency on the right things in the right ways first requires the patience to step back and determine what’s going on, what you’re trying to do and how you need to proceed to accomplish that goal. It’s the patience to step back and assess followed by the urgency to act. The analogy that applies here is the one that I first learned from Harvard’s Ron Heifetz and have used for most of my adult life; as a leader you can either be on the balcony or the dance floor and to be effective you need to systematically shift your perspective and attention between the two. It takes patience to step back, get up on the balcony and assess what’s going on but it sets you up to be so much more effective when you get back to the urgency of the dance floor.

Patience Shows You Where and How to Act: As we all move into this next phase of engaging in the world, we’re going to need to run some new plays that match up with the new and next version of reality. And to run the right plays, you have to work from a good playbook. Running the plays requires urgency; developing the playbook requires patience. Part of the work of leadership right now is to have the patience to bring people together to do some scenario planning and diagnostic work on how the world and your marketplace has changed during the pandemic. It’s highly likely that you’re going to need some new plays in your playbook. You can’t just keep urgently running the old pre-pandemic plays and expect them to work in a late stage and post-pandemic world. The game has changed; the plays need to change as well. Have the patience to develop a new playbook and train your team with it before you send them into the urgency of the game.

What are you noticing, thinking and doing about hitting the sweet spot between patience and urgency right now? Share your observations and lessons learned in a comment if you’re reading this post through LinkedIn or email me with your thoughts directly if you’re reading on the Eblin Group blog.

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