Cairn Leadership

Slow down to be a better leader

Slow down and build leadership presence

Imagine clinging to a rock wall with nothing below you for 100 feet. Fear washes over you in waves. You see the hold you need to keep moving upward- just out of your reach. Desperation sets in. You shift a little, take a sharp breath and explode upward. Your left-hand nails the hold, which was not actually as good as it looked from below. You slip back, your downward momentum ripping you from the rock. You plummet toward your belayer. Catching on your rope, you shout out your frustration and solemnly start re-climbing the distance you just lost.

Maybe this could have gone differently. Instead, imagine seeing the hold. You are not sure about the quality of the rock, so you don’t lunge. You take deep breaths, calming yourself as you look for other options. You notice a tiny nook to put your left toe in. You slowly shift your weight to the right, and with coiled precision and core power, you place your left foot. You feel it bite, weight shifts back left. Hips over a foot, move with solid control upward. Left hand finds the hold and you settle your weight onto it, taking full advantage of the nuance of friction and micro contours in the rock. You move forward, powerful and confident.

I recently realized that to improve my rock climbing, I needed more of the second scenario. Intentionally moving slowly on climbs has helped me focus, complete harder climbs, and remain calm in scary situations. I recently came across this gem from a friend and mountaineering mentor, “The older I get, the less willing I am to just give up. Success these days feels less like luck or magic and more like the result of trying hard. And in my good moments, I can recognize that perhaps this is the more rewarding path.”

I began to think about the things worth time and effort, the things worth taking slowly. The most important of these to me is leadership- an opportunity to help people access and leverage their best selves to achieve amazing outcomes.

As leaders grow, we start to develop an important distinction. The lunges of desperation we used to label as ‘brave’ or ‘high risk-high reward,’ were just foolish reliance on our ability to power through situations created by our own rash decisions.

Slow, controlled, and powerful movements, like when climbing rock, lead to clear high-quality decisions made calmly in the face of danger. This inspires others to follow. So, why don’t we all slow down and act more intentionally as leaders?

Better leaders need core strength

First, it takes immense core strength! Lunging for a rock hold only requires a quick push-off with big leg muscles and a little hope- not very difficult. Slow intentional movement requires abdominal muscles of steel, poise, and careful balance. Leaders need strong core values, a well-articulated philosophy, and a crystal-clear vision to truly move with intention. 

Developing this leadership core takes time and effort. Many leaders prefer the jump-and-hope method to deep introspection. Try spending some quality time in a place of solitude this week and really nail down what you care about. Then be intentional about honoring your priorities.

Awareness is a key to better leadership

Intention also requires awareness. I recently took a rock climbing instruction exam. I am very good at instructing, and still, my examiner who has been doing this about 20 years longer noticed a myriad of details I could improve on. For leaders to make intentional decisions and actions, they must notice the nuances of their people, the situation, and themselves that drift by most people. This might require some honest feedback discussions with direct reports and managers, a great leadership coach, or some new ways to enforce perceiving. Whatever method you choose, start noticing the things you typically leave to chance and pick the ones that matter. Intentionally influence your values and vision!

No excuses!

Lastly, intentional leaders have no more refuge of excuses! When you lunge for something, it is easy to say it was too hard of an objective if you miss it. People understand it was a stretch goal anyway. When you put in the energy and time to move slowly and your foot slips out at the last second anyway, it can be devastating. Intention means noticing what you influence and pouring your heart in soul into the slow deliberate crafting of your organization. When it doesn’t work, hopefully, you were focused on enjoying the journey more than attaining the goal. A growth mindset leader will learn, expand and excel with intentional leadership. A fixed-mindset leader might just give up. Notice where you are in the fixed-to-growth mindset continuum and prepare for the time you lose your footing even after giving it every ounce of your effort!

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast

The military loves to say ‘Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.’ As a young officer, I always thought, “ok, but fast and smooth is still clearly better.” Not so fast. Quick decisions can be important but taking the extra moment to lead with precision and calm, leading from a strong and centered state, will make all the difference! Research shows that the only common factor among inspirational leaders is centeredness, which Eric Garton from HBR defines as a “state of mindfulness that enables leaders to remain calm under stress, empathize, listen deeply, and remain present.” Each part of his definition requires immense focus, intention, and time! Before you make your next move, find your center, breath, notice, and move from your core with precision and control!