The Patient Leader

By: Jim Bruce

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Bruce, Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously served as Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Jim may be reached at]

Professor Manifred de Vires1, INSEAD Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change, defines patience as “the ability to stay calm in the face of disappointment, adversity or distress. Having patience allows us to better process challenging situations. It helps us sort out our thoughts and bring our feelings under control. Patience reduces the risk of angry outbursts. It helps us not to resort to snap judgments, improving the quality of our decisions. Patient leaders have better relationships with colleagues, friends and family.”
Wikipedia2 defines patience as “the ability to endure difficult circumstances such as perseverance in the face of delay; tolerance of provocation without responding in annoyance/anger; forbearance when under strain, especially when faced with longer-term difficulties. Patience is the level of endurance one can have before negativity.”
“Leading effectively, especially during crisis, takes patience.”3 Actually, I would take that further. I believe that leading effectively always takes patience. While leaders are not always facing a major crisis, leaders are almost always under pressure to deliver in major and minor ways. It may be the unexpected resignation of a key staff member (to accept a much better job elsewhere) who was working on a crucial project due in a few weeks. Or, finalizing and presenting your organization’s strategic plan. Or, the relatively minor occasion of not being able to find a parking spot which will make you late for a significant meeting with your manager and others. Or, something between these two extremes. Being patient with others, and also with yourself, is a key to your success as a leader.
So, what does a leader need to do to become a truly patient leader? Here is my short list:
1.   Always be prepared. Over the course of any given day, a leader will interact with many situations and individuals. Hopefully, many, indeed most, of these interactions are expected and known in advance. And, therefore, it’s entirely possible that you can, and you should, come to the engagement well prepared. Some are simple: Have a conversation with Pat about leading the new project team. And, I’ll want to prepare for this discussion by thinking through Pat’s qualifications, the work he or she is currently doing. And, develop my argument for her or him to take on the team leadership role, and how I might react to any expected responses. I know. This may sound like overkill but my experience suggests that planning, even for small tasks, is a good discipline for a leader to have.
2.   Carefully plan. In order to be prepared, one must really take the time to develop a carefully prepared plan for how you expect to use your time. It should include the time you need for your work as an individual, the work preparing for meetings, yours as well as those called by others, that you have the engagement on your calendar, time for you to travel – even walking across a a campus takes time, especially if you encounter someone whom you want to talk with – to any meetings you have that are not in your office, time for lunch and other breaks, etc. You get the idea. Your calendar really does need to be comprehensive and be able to serve as your comprehensive action plan for the day. A practice that many MOR program alumni have found helpful is to do an overview of your commitments for the coming week at the end of a week and then take the first minutes of each morning to review the calendar for that day and make additions and changes that are required. If you have planned well, then the anxiety that we often have when we engage others will give us a degree of patience in the engagement that might otherwise escape us.
3.   Express gratitude. According to Robert Emmons, University of California, Davis psychologist and author on gratitude: “Feeling gratitude starts with the realization of what we have received from others and what it has cost them.”4 Look for opportunities to say “thank you.” And, notice Professor Emmons words: Your thank you needs to acknowledge both what you received and its cost to the giver. It’s not sufficient to just say “Thanks, Sam for getting this project report to me.” You need to recognize the cost to Sam: “I realize that to finish this early you had to put in several long nights and a weekend. I really appreciate your doing this as it enabled me to discuss it with the department head before she left on her trip.” Studies5 at the Harvard Business School and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that simply saying “Thank you” in the workplace resulted in a 50% increase in the amount of additional help offered. Another study showed that 15% of us never say “Thank you!” at work and 35% of those surveyed had never heard their managers say thank you. (Think about how your colleagues might score you if they were asked these survey questions about you.)
And, since we so often forget instances where someone has done something for us, consider keeping a “gratitude journal” and at the end of the day enter instances where individuals did something of significance for you, and whether you did or still need to say “thank you” to them. Perhaps writing a note would be an appropriate action.
4.   Be realistic. Ask yourself, how often you are unrealistic about how much you can accomplish in any given time period. Like, how likely are you going to be able to finish what you have “planned” for today? Be honest, now! As I look about my office, I can find all sorts of “projects” that have been started and are now “paused” because I didn’t have time to finish them or, in too many instances, even start them. This debris field, in many ways serves as a reminder of things I need to get done. However, it’s totally unorganized and I’m sure that some important tasks are stuck at the bottom of piles and some may never have been written down. To help (me and) you be more organized, keep a single list of all of your future projects. And, put the background materials for each project in a set of folders, either electronic or paper, where you can find them. I know this takes time but the “payoff” is significant.
And, be kind to yourself. Professor de Vires1 reminds us of the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Each of us will be regularly tested and we need not to be so proud that we cannot admit to ourselves and others that we were too optimistic and ambitious.
5.   Discover, and get to know, the triggers that move you from being patient to a state of impatience. We all have them. Your triggers may be specific individuals, a particular type of event, certain words or vocabulary, etc. Become familiar with them. Be able to recognize them when they arrive. My biggest one is an individual not keeping a commitment he or she has made to me – like being late for a meeting, not delivering on a commitment on time, arriving unprepared for a meeting, etc. Recognizing what is going on gives you the opportunity to let the anger dissipate and enables you to develop mitigation strategies for the future. For example, if you know Joe is always going to be late for a meeting, no matter how many times you ask for promptness and give the reminder that “being five minutes early is late,” you plan for that. For example, you put agenda items involving her or him later in the meeting.
6.   Ask for help. Too often, as leaders we are a proud, self-sufficient lot. Or, as I was, taught at an early age not to ask for help on something you are not willing to do for yourself. Get over it. Develop a willingness to seek help, from colleagues, from friends, family, a coach, etc. Or, in some instances when you are not able to change the situation, find a way to work around it.
Being patient is hard. Professor de Vires says that too often practicing patience feels like hiding your impatience. And, that is at least half true. Half true for me because I often know that a report or project is going to be delivered late, that a person will show up late for a meeting, etc. In these instances, I always have with me some work that I need to do to keep me occupied with productive work and keep me from becoming impatient.
Becoming and being a more patient leader is a valuable tool for you to have in your toolkit. Do add it to the list of skills that you continue to work on.
.  .  .  .  jim
1.   Manfred F. R. Kets de Vires, How Leaders Can Cultivate Patience in an Impatient World, INSEAD Knowledge BLOG, July 1, 2020.
2.   Wikipedia, Patience.
3.   David Sluss, Becoming a More Patient Leader, BusinessMirror, September 7, 2020.
4.   Claire Ansberry, Beyond Thankful: Cultivating a Life of Gratitude, Turning Points, Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2017.
5.   Francesca Gino and Adam Grant, The Big Benefits of a Little Thanks, HBR Podcast and Transcript, November 2013.

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