Many leaders shine in exceptional circumstances. No surprise there--doing so is a large part of the role of leadership, after all.
More telling is what leaders do in mundane, day-to-day, unexceptional times. Those times when there's no compelling crisis or emergency. Those times when there's just a lot of daily, weekly, monthly routine "stuff" to get through. Most of the time, in other words.
What I've discovered is that "most of the time" leaders pass up exceptional opportunities make a real difference, because they're both lulled by the rhythm of the mundane and distracted by anticipation of the next crisis.
It's an incongruous, yet common combination: Leaders buoyed along by routine while at the same time constantly scanning their peripheral vision for impending emergencies. The net result is that they spend days, even weeks, unfocussed and a little adrift, idling like a Porsche left sitting in the garage.
All of which, of course, leads to many missed opportunities to make a real difference while in the midst of here-and-now, everyday, maintenance-like activities.
Here are three ways you can take the Porsche out of the garage on even the dullest of days:
1. Develop a morning routine. I see this characteristic in almost every truly great leader I meet. They have an inviolate morning routine. It allows them time to "get off the dance floor and go to the balcony". (The terminology is from Ron Heifitz's excellent book Leadership on the Line, which I strongly recommend for anyone serious about leadership.)
It doesn't really matter how you spend this time--meditation, strolling, quiet thinking, even light (non-distracting) reading can work. What matters is that you take time every day to center your thoughts around your role as a leader. Recall your main leadership priorities. Let them roll around in your mind. Don't force anything or feel the need to arrive at any great conclusions or a-ha's (though you'll often pick some up along the way). Just instill mindfulness of your leadership role as you start the day.
If you arrive at your desk unprepared and unthinking, rote tactical granularity will sandbag you until the next emergency jolts you awake. If you arrive with your leadership role consciously refreshed as your key priority, it's easier to stay alert to leadership opportunities.
2. Heighten the first 90 seconds of every interaction. As a leader you will likely have somewhere between seven and 25 key interactions in any given day--between the people you meet, meetings you chair, calls you make or take or important data you ingest or import to others.
In each of those interactions, its the first 90 seconds that sets the tone. A hurried, mumbled "How're ya doin'?" settles us into the stilted, tired choreography of an "I-say-this-to-you, then you-say-this-to-me" routine meeting. Whereas a slower-paced, locked-eyes, smiling "Tell me about your weekend trip" sets the foundation for a more genuine, deeper interaction. And who knows, maybe a new perspective on an old issue.
Similarly, diving into the weekly management meeting with "Right, what's item one, then?" may seem like all that's required for an interaction which everyone in the room is, let's face it, familiar with to the point of near-boredom. But taking a minute and a half to look slowly around the room, while reminding everyone of the meeting's purpose and goal can be powerfully centering, and can release creativity and innovative thinking in an instant.
3. Balance hard and soft landscape in your schedule. Hard landscape items (scheduled meetings, calls and other time-specific events) are to leadership what systems and processes are in organizations. They are necessary to ensure the delivery of consistent quality in the face of complexity--but death to creativity, flexibility and innovation when overdone.
In my observation, once your calendar has more than 60 percent of its time blocked out for hard landscape activities, your ability to lead strategically begins to erode. By the time calls, meetings and other scheduled activities hit 80 percent of your reasonably available time, the chances of you leading at all are close to zero--you have effectively become a manager.
Review your calendar for the next two weeks: What can you drop, defer or delegate to make time for "soft" activities, like a strategic review of the next (or last) quarter, or an impromptu discussion with a key colleague--or a visit to a key customer?