How to be a patient leader

Slowing things down, understanding yourself and practising mindfulness all contribute to becoming a more patient leader
by Bethan Rees


As the adage goes, patience is a virtue, and it can be an effective value in leadership. David Sluss, associate professor of organisational behaviour at Scheller College of Business, says in a Harvard Business Review article: "Leading effectively – especially during a crisis – takes patience. If you can’t retain your composure in the face of frustration or adversity, you won’t be able to keep others calm. When your direct reports show signs of strain, you need to support them, not get irritated."

Sluss surveyed 578 full-time working professionals in the US across a range of sectors during the Covid-19 lockdown. He asked about their immediate supervisor’s leadership behaviours and patience levels and asked respondents to self-report their levels of creativity, productivity and collaboration. "Their responses revealed that patience had a powerful effect: when leaders demonstrated it (meaning their employees’ ratings put them in the highest quartile) … [their] creativity and collaboration increased by an average of 16% and their productivity by 13%."

In an article published by Medium, management solutions firm Not Just Leadership says that patience is a leadership quality that is often overlooked. "There are most certainly times when you need to move quickly and decidedly, but if you are being a good leader, these moments will be rare," it says.

"Working at a slow and smooth pace reduces mistakes and re-dos"In another article published by Medium, Thomas Oppong writes: "When you are impatient, you feel rushed, stressed and unhappy nearly all the time – especially if the same situation repeats over and over again … your stress hormone levels rise, which in turn triggers the flight or fight response – this can lead to a panic attack or an anxiety attack and generally a whole host of negative consequences on your health."

Here are some tips to develop this important virtue.

Slow is smooth

By taking influence from US Navy SEALs, leaders could redefine the meaning of speed and operate with a level of patience, rather than urgency. Sluss writes that SEALs are known for their saying "slow is smooth, and smooth is fast". He continues: "These rapid-response special forces teams are paradoxically methodical and patient in both planning and executing their time-critical missions. They have learnt over 60 years of operating in crisis situations that working at a slow and smooth pace reduces mistakes and re-dos and in the end speeds up the mission. In short, they have learnt that leaders shouldn’t confuse operational speed (moving quickly) with strategic speed (reducing the time it takes to deliver value)."

What's making you impatient?

Identifying what makes you feel impatient is a good place to start in improving patience. Sarah DiGiulio in an article for NBC News says to recognise when you're "starting to feel activated" and to "identify what emotion is at the heart of the response, causing you to get heated". For example, your co-worker has missed a deadline. In this scenario try and reframe the situation. "Put yourself in the other person's shoes," DiGiulio writes. "My co-worker isn’t purposefully trying to miss his deadlines, he has a lot on his plate."

"Taking a walk to clear your head can be helpful in getting refocused on what's important"

Oppong echoes the reframing point. "Instead of dwelling on your irritation, think about something productive you will do with your time later in the day. Letting go of your frustration in this way will instantly make you feel better," he writes. "Think with your purpose in mind. Remember the benefits and importance of controlling your emotions or frustrations."

In an Inc article Rhett Power, head coach at Power Coaching and Consulting, says, "most people have several tasks in their head and they jump from thought to thought without taking the time to finish one task". Therefore, he says, as we try and multitask, it can feel frustrating when we’re not making progress, and this could be a trigger of impatience. Being mindful of our thoughts can slow you down and help focus on one task at a time, therefore removing the triggers that stress you out, he explains.

Breathing, meditation and mindfulness

Something as simple as taking deep breaths can calm the mind and the body when under stress – and stress can trigger feelings of impatience. Power says this is the easiest way to ease any impatient feelings. "If breathing doesn't help, I find taking a walk to clear your head can be helpful in getting refocused on what's important," he adds.

As a Review article explains, mindfulness is a helpful tool for dealing with stress and negative emotions. This sentiment is echoed in a article, which says mindfulness and meditation are "especially effective for impatience".

"Mindfulness is considered to be a mental skill in which proponents pay attention to the present moment, allowing them to feel aware of thoughts and feelings, and be grateful for the small things. Meditation is a chance to simply breathe, feel the body relax, and focus on nothing more than the next breath, which can help 'reset' thinking and move the focus away from negative emotions," the article says. These two in tandem can "offer a powerful antidote to the stress of impatience".

Patience can be learnt. By being a patient leader, this will have a positive impact on your team, whether that's higher productivity, lower stress levels or heightened creativity.

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Published: 25 Sep 2020
  • Training, Competence and Culture
  • Soft Skills
  • patience
  • mindfulness
  • leadership
  • Career advice

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