Leadership is a lot like a ropes course – you are confronted with challenge after challenge, each one testing your skills and giving you an opportunity for personal development and team growth. In this series, we are looking at elements of “The Leadership Ropes Course” that all leaders need to face – and master!
Have you ever ridden a zip line? You are attached with a pulley and harness to a cable that is suspended above an incline. Then you step off a platform and – z-z-z-i-i-p! – you are sailing through the air, often above treetops or ravines, speeding your way to a far off destination. It is frightening and exhilarating the first time you do it. Subsequent rides, as your confidence grows, are pure fun: you know you will arrive safely, so you can enjoy the ride to the full.
As a leader, you can gain an important insight about decision-making from the zip line – an insight that James Sipe and Don Frick talk about in their classic book Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership:
“The analysis component of decision making is not a problem for most people. We analyze, categorize, and prioritize an issue to within an inch of its life, because that is what is rewarded in most organizations. The reflection part of problem solving is more challenging. It often requires taking time away from the matter to gain perspective and to draw upon the wisdom of intuition. This element of the process does not come naturally to most people. It requires some precious time, a slight leap of faith, and some loss of control—something that produces anxiety in many people.”
In other words, we like standing on a solid platform with our feet firmly planted on the planks of fact and analysis. But to make the best decisions, we need to step away from that platform. We need to trust the harness of intuition and take time for reflection. Only by doing so will we get perspective on what all those facts and analyses really mean, and achieve clarity as to what the best decision is.
It is amazing what you can see when you are riding a zip line. Trees that normally loom above you are suddenly small and inconsequential far below your feet. Obstacles you could not see from the platform are clearly visible. You have limitless space around you and the ability to take it all in from a high vantage point.
The same is true in decision-making. When you take time to reflect, you might see that what you thought were major issues are actually inconsequential in the long run. On the other hand, you might realize that factors you had not considered could prove to be challenging. In the space created by reflection, things assume their rightful proportion. You can prioritize effectively, identify where you need more information, and weigh various solutions – or even come up with an entirely new solution.
Consider the scenario where a company is assessing whether to bring a new product into the market. The product would require a significant investment in development, marketing, customer service, etc. Market analysis is favorable, but the investment would put a serious strain on the company’s resources. Moving forward is possible from a financial standpoint; however, it could mean that other long-term goals would need to be delayed or even canceled. On the other hand, if the product is successful, it could open the door to rich market opportunities.
There are a lot of pros and cons to be evaluated here. Each of the analyses points in a different direction. More information is not going to add anything significant to the discussion. What is needed is time to reflect: time to consider not just the product, but the company’s vision and mission, its employees and stakeholders, its customers and competitors. Time to let the more important points emerge from the mass of data. Time to detach from facts and figures and reports to get perspective.
Does reflection slow the pace of decision making? Yes, it does … and that is a good thing. Reflection relieves the relentless pressure that characterizes the workplace today. In so doing, it allows your conscious and unconscious mind do their job to the fullest. If you find yourself resisting making space for reflection, remember the zip line: the total time in the air is not actually that long … but the clarity it brings is unbeatable!