Become a more patient leader

by Jill Malleck, OD Consultant and Integral Coach ™


Leadership, in its most base form, is often defined as “getting things done through others.” True, but only partially true. This narrow definition belies the deeper, creative and generative contributions enabled by strong leaders. Our hierarchical and functional structures support this partial view, visibly rewarding leaders for short term gains and boosts in team productivity. The emphasis seems to be tilted toward the getting things done part – with too little attention paid to the others. This has contributed to an increase in leadership behaviours that are short-sighted and relationally dysfunctional. One of the most common is impatience.


Everyone gets impatient at times. An overabundance of impatience in a leader causes undue stress on a team. It makes others nervous. Rushing others can cause errors and unwarranted costs. A leaders’ impatience will trigger frantic and scattered activity and deplete resources. Here are some thoughts for dealing with your own impatience, and perhaps modeling more patient behaviour for others.


1.      Stop labeling impatience as a Sense of Urgency. Many organizations use competency models that reframe this as desired leadership behaviour.  The competency defines someone who is driven by results, and is concerned with getting things done expediently. It speaks to speed and aggressive pursuit. It is likely something you want in a courier company. In a leader, this label is used to rationalize uncooperative behaviour and unreasonable demands. Those who prudently want to stop and reexamine a goal or the speed of change are seen as lacking an important leadership competency.

2.      Replace sense of urgency with Sense of Priority. Avoid simplifying work’s complexity by saying “it’s all important”.  Leaders who say that everything is important diminish their credibility. Remember the lesson from the fable of the boy who cried wolf. When the really important project or issue arrives, people are slower to move and underestimate the impacts. They may be just plain tired of running. Instead of hyping up all the work, prioritize. Re-prioritize when new and unplanned work arises. Answer the question “what’s trump?” Help your team members to align their time and energy to the most strategic and important activities. Allow work to be a constant source of challenge and enjoyment, with the occasional urgent request when it matters most.

3.      Ask for and listen to details. We’ve all seen the memo – usually pinned to a junior staff person’s office wall: Why is there never time to do it right, but always time to do it over? What an in-your-face cry for help. Obviously this person has borne the additional workload caused by someone’s impatience. Impatient leaders often shy away from details saying they are overwhelmed or they prefer to stay strategic. Of course, this means they can stay blissfully ignorant of the negative impacts of unreasonable requests. Leaders like this cut themselves off from important information. That’s risky. They also lose the opportunity to build rapport and trust. When you invest time in listening to all levels in the organization you are better prepared to realistically predict impacts of change. You can better prioritize the workload. You can differentiate between a creative challenge and a stupid attempt. Leaders who take the time to listen to the details of what others are dealing with are seen as empathetic and supportive. They create loyalty in their team because they are trusted.

4.      Clarify your expectations. Typically we are impatient with those who don’t deliver to our expectations. You’ve asked for a report on a situation and it doesn’t cover your main concerns. You’ve asked for a letter to go to customers, and what went out was embarrassing. Before you decide to share your impatience with others, step back. How clear were you on your expectations? The main reason people disappoint us is that they didn’t know what we were expecting. In our rush to get something done, we assign the work without putting it in context. This isn’t delegating – it’s dumping. Take the time to articulate the purpose behind the assignment. Share your thoughts about what the ideal outcome would look like. Be clear on standards of quality and important elements to be included. Make fewer assumptions about what others know and understand.

5.      Watch your body language. Here’s what impatient people do – they tap their feet, they look at their watch, they roll their eyes as they listen. All of this can be signals to others that they are wasting our time or we are bored with their slow speed. Extremely impatient people will read, doodle, email, surf the Net or type messages right in front of someone who is talking or presenting. This is the height of rudeness. It diminishes the other person and telegraphs to them “you are not important.” Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your position allows you to multi-task and ignore people. You gain respect by being direct and kind. Say something about what is going on in the moment for you. “I find that my mind is wandering to an important meeting I have this afternoon – can you go right to the heart of what we need to cover here?”  “I really only had 10 minutes for this conversation, and we are over that already. Can we finish it up, or reschedule more time for later?” “I don’t think you need me in this meeting. Is it alright if I bow out?” Don’t pretend to be interested when you are not.

6.      Take personal responsibility for your impatience. We all can get impatient at times. One theorist says we are each motivated by the need for power, attention or inclusion. You may feel impatient when you aren’t getting what you need in these areas. You may feel impatient because you are thwarted in your desire to speak or to be heard. You may be impatient because you are feeling pressured from your boss, the Board or the customers. Your feelings of jitteriness may be a product of too much caffeine. Stop and breathe. Diagnose why you feel impatient. Now, think about what it means to show patience.

How can you incorporate a patient approach? Perhaps you can practice listening full, whole body in, sitting very still and not distracting yourself. You can remove your watch before a meeting in respect to another person’s timing. Think about cutting back on coffee. Recognize your personal impatience and instead of speeding everyone else up, slow yourself down. It can be very empowering for a group to be given time to stay in a discussion that is important to them. If you must, excuse yourself from the meeting and go do something else for 10 minutes. Just give the team permission to keep working on it without you. You might be surprised at how much they get done once impatience leaves the room.

Jill Malleck has 20-plus years as an HR Consultant, Facilitator and Coach. She works with organizations, groups and individuals to accelerate positive change and improve results.

Integral Coach is a trade-mark in Canada owned by Integral Coaching Canada Inc. and licensed to Jill Malleck.

Permission is given to reprint this article with full attribution.

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