The Case for Slow Leadership

CEOs are urged to be fast-paced change agents, but it’s an approach that can court failure and risk losing valuable input.

Remember the slowness movement? Given the pace at which we process information these days, it might have sped past you.

Back in the early oughts, many people were singing the praises of taking a more deliberate approach in a variety of disciplines. “Slow food” is the most famous version of the concept—locally grown food, old-fashioned cooking techniques, meals experienced in a patient and unfussy way. But there were all sorts of ways to be slow: Slow parenting to avoid overprogramming kids’ lives, slow travel to avoid superficial tourist experiences, and so on.

The level of ongoing change breeds skepticism and mistrust from employees.

Then social media arrived, and with it a sense that every movement is just one more shiny object to be witness and dispensed with until the next shiny object arrives. Slow became just another fashion.

That’s unfortunate, but I’m not about to propose a philosophy of slow associations to you—most CEOs who’ve experienced overly deliberate boards that resist change will tell you that associations are already plenty slow, thank you very much. So executive consultant Elizabeth Freedman is probably wise to frame her recommendation that leaders slow down as “incredibly unpopular advice.”

Still, Freedman is on to something: Employees and other stakeholders have experienced so many ill-fitting “change management” schemes that they’ve grown cynical about their meaning and effectiveness.

“Too much change is counterproductive,” she writes. “Employees can absorb only so much before they become oversaturated, stretched too thin, and performance suffers. Worse, the level of ongoing change and what accompanies it breeds a level of skepticism and mistrust from employees that lingers long after the changes have taken place.” She cites one study saying that nearly a third of workers believe any publicly announced change has a hidden agenda.

That doesn’t mean organizations should abandon change entirely, of course, or that they shouldn’t cultivate a certain agility when it comes to responding to industry shifts. But rushing to make change happen, Freedman points out, often comes at the expense of communicating with the people who can point out serious flaws with an idea or propose improvements.

She cites one project that ran wildly over budget and behind schedule, thanks to the frustrations of team leaders who felt they couldn’t acknowledge how burdensome the idea had become. “Slowing down might have provided time for the executive steering team to notice that the project was failing, to respond to project team requests for assistance, or demonstrate commitment to the cause in clear, actionable ways,” she writes.

So if we’re going to define a “slow association,” I’d suggest that it’s less of a leadership philosophy and more of a communications one. It recognizes that any process is at risk of failure because leaders weren’t more deliberate at the front end about identifying who might best be able to speak to potential flaws. It doesn’t mean loosening your deadlines or ignoring a sense of urgency. It’s more of a “measure twice, cut once” concept: Take the time to plan appropriately at the outset to avoid managing chaos later.

Reading the field reports from last week’s ASAE Great Ideas Conference, I was struck by how much of the advice given from the stage was in effect advocating for this kind of deliberative temperament. Consultant Greg Roth spotlighted the virtues of setting aside big goals in favor of “micro-experiments” that allow organizations to make adjustments over time without being intimidated by a massive project. The American Chemical Society created a successful custom content studio with a small-scale pilot that allowed the association’s marketing and sales teams to get in sync to make the idea work.

And consultants Mary Ellen Brennan and Beth McDonald emphasized the importance of soliciting input from a variety of stakeholders around an important project. That might slow down a project, but it can also be the difference between seeing it to launch and killing it entirely. “People will feel brought into a change if their peer group is brought in,” McDonald said. And ultimately it’s that support you want to have—at whatever pace is necessary to do so.

What do you do in your organization to slow down your processes to ensure that you’ve addressed necessary issues and brought relevant stakeholders into the conversation? Share your experiences in the comments.

(STUDIOGRANDOUEST/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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