The Pace of Leadership

If you have been misguided enough to drive a car at 120 mph on a highway and, like me, you’re lucky enough to live to write about it, you are left to reflect on:

    1. You could have died, and your friend riding shotgun reminds you of this fact to this day
    2. You were fully engaged in the moment and filled with fear, like your friend
    3. You could only see the road directly in front of you; all else was a blur
    4. The speed limit feels even slower than before but also safer

Speed kills is a lesson we learn in driver’s education. Almost 50% of all vehicle accidents are caused by speeding. I’d suggest well over 50% of leadership breakdowns are related to going too fast for too long without any pauses to allow for reflection and learning. As highlighted above, when we go too fast, our field of vision narrows, and we miss noticing things we would see at a more moderate pace, like the speed limit or a struggling employee. We also lose important connections with others when speeding, even if they are right next to us, because our attention is focused on staying in control.

Speed can also be positive and critical to driving transformative change in organizations and businesses. Demonizing speed misses the point, while repeating the mantra “slow down” to leaders can be seen as simplistic and out of touch with reality. It’s also a false choice to ask if we want something done fast or done right. Quality need not suffer at the hands of a fast pace if we give it the right level of attention.

Leading at the right pace is about mindful moderation, knowing when to speed up, when to slow down, and when to come to a full stop. It’s also dependent on context as each situation calls for different applications between gas pedal and brake.

Leading at the right pace is more critical now as we emerge and learn to live with our collective Covid nightmare, with all its disruptions and tragedies. In our current environment, companies are facing internal and external challenges and the need to change and evolve—workers and leaders are stressed as we all try to figure out the best work environments that fit particular cultures and business models, and an overheated economy with a tight job market puts pressure on organizations to sustain and grow their businesses.

Setting the Right Pace

There is no right pace. A lesson I’ve learned for myself and the leaders and teams with whom I constantly work. The pace and tempo of leadership have everything to do with context—the type of business, the strategy and culture of the organization, and the personal style of leaders.

Looking inside ourselves is the best first. We can look at our thinking process and decision-making. Our minds have the ability to speed up and slow down as psychologist and researcher, Daniel Kahneman, points out in his important book, “Thinking Fast and Slow.” In short, the way we see the world and react to it with decisions depends on the integration of two systems, one that is fast and guided by first impressions, intuitions, and quick associations (System 1), and the other, which operates at a more deliberate pace, guided by reflection and intentional attention (System 2). Otherwise, we can find ourselves creating a false sense of urgency that can cause confusion and negatively impact well-being.

We see this lack of integrative thinking play out in organizations, where both quick decisions and slow decisions can wreak havoc. Hiring and firing are good examples. How many of us have either witnessed or been a part of a staffing decision that was too quick, where, say, an internal candidate was pushed for a position by a powerful leader without too much question, or a firing process, which was slowed down to give the employee yet another chance to perform at expected levels.

Pace is also influenced by our emotions and our energy. Neuroscience has revealed in tandem with psychology that our brains are organized in integrative systems, with feedback loops within our own brains and also between ourselves and others. The work of neuroscientists, like Lisa Feldman Barrett, has shown that emotions are more a ‘We’ experience than an ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘mine’ experience. Mood is contagious. In short, if a leader is revved up and literally speed walking between offices, like one of my clients, the entire team will feel the tension and pressure. The same holds true for procrastination. Either way, by going too fast or too slow, a leader loses credibility and unwittingly spreads tension to those on their teams and into the organization.

Going fast to keep pace with business needs is important in a constantly changing market environment. However, the faster a leader moves, the more their interactions with others tend to be transactional. To counter this derailing tendency that can put quickness and efficiency at odds with relationship building, we can practice mindful reflection, or mindfulness. In this way, no matter how fast we go, we stay present with the experience of each moment and with the people around us. It’s this present attention we give to others in our daily interactions that paves the way for both goodwill and high performance.

A specific example of how pace can impact our relationships is when we become more aware of the quality of our listening. I once asked an executive who had received feedback about their deficient listening skills – “What would change if you slowed a bit and listened more?” The response – “Probably everything.” And, indeed, the executive predicted her own future, because after slowing her pace a bit and practicing listening with attention each day for 6 months, a new round of feedback showed how much she had changed. As one 360-rater described, “She’s fully with me and listening intently for our entire meeting now. I don’t have to repeat myself or waste my time following up because she didn’t hear me. Our meetings are shorter, and we get more done. Before, she’d try to pay attention to me while multitasking and at the same time give me a rapid-fire list of things to think about or do. Her better listening has changed everything.”

When it comes to the pace of leadership, whether we are in high or low gear, or simply idling, the key practice is being present and attuned to our own pace as well as the pace of our interactions, and within a system.

An Invitation to Reflect

How aware are we of our pace of leading and operating?

What are we noticing in our thinking patterns and bodily sensations that can inform the pace in which we lead?

What role does pace play in our relationships, and what is the impact?

How does pace show up in our organizational culture, and what is the impact?

What is my role in speeding up or slowing down the pace for my team and the organization?

At what pace will my team feel motivated and energized to drive the organization’s mission objectives and/or business goals?

Postscript – My evolving driving habits

  • I haven’t driven 120 mph since I was 18
  • But, I’m mostly a left lane driver who only drives over the speed limit on highways
  • Recently my daughter, while riding shotgun, asked why I was driving so fast.  I moved to the middle lane, slowed to the speed limit, and replied, “Not sure. What would you like to talk about?”


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David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Penguin Publishing Group.

Feldman Barrett, L. (2017). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books.

Feldman Barrett, L. (2020). Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Harper.

Jha, A. (2021). Peak Mind: Find Your Focus. Own Your Attention. Invest 12 Minutes a Day. HarperCollins

Kahnman, D. (2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Kline, N. (1999). Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind. Ward Lock

Schon, D. A. (1984). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action (1st ed.). Basic Books.