How to become a more patient and attentive leader

Businessman Selecting Puzzle PieceOrdinary life is a rich practice field, and the Leaders I coach are often surprised to discover they can build new capabilities outside the office.

Prani is a leader who is impatient: Her sense of urgency which had, till now, been an asset, is creating harm. Staff go to great lengths to stay out of her way, because to be seen by her is to be grilled on the progress of tasks. Invariably she wants to move faster. Lately, her colleagues have noticed she isn’t listening in meetings, but interrupting them with her excited suggestions. How can she slow down, cultivate patience and show better attentiveness to the people facing her in the moment?

This situation calls for a way to build new skills, such as assembling a puzzle. Jigsaw puzzles require patience, focus and calmness.

I ask Prani to take up jigsaw puzzles. She starts with a 500 piece Ravensburger, well engineered in Germany. She has picked an idyllic scene in the south of France.

At first, she reports, she is anxious – working furiously to find the outer-edge pieces and get the framework in place. I remind her that there is no deadline, no pressure, no one to finish it for. (I ask her how much coffee she is drinking at the puzzle table). The end result, we decide, will be nothing more than a picture of the completed puzzle, and then she will take it apart again. There will be no lasting output to speak of. The satisfaction must be found in the doing – in the moment. This is time to pay attention.

The second week Prani discovers that her pace is steady. She has discovered that by patiently taking the time to study the big picture on the box lid closely, she can see which corner individual pieces belong to. There is a sense of rightness when two pieces click together, and a sense of wrongness when she tries to force-fit pieces together in haste.

By the third week she is amazed to notice that sitting in front of the puzzle creates a quietness inside her mind. “I don’t think of work, or the chores to be done – I am totally immersed in the colours and textures of the puzzle.” There is a satisfaction, like a tiny ping, as sections come together. If she looks carefully at a section of the puzzle, and relaxes into a more leisurely shifting of the pieces, her hand intuitively chooses just what she wants. “It’s like my brain has memorized the missing shape and colours and ignores what it doesn’t need.”

Within a month, Prani has finished the puzzle. We have been talking about transferring the benefits of puzzle-making to the workplace. Prani talks about looking at the “big picture” and seeking out more information before rushing to action. She listens attentively to the details, and doesn’t interrupt others so much. Her staff notice that she isn’t rushing them along, but sits with them to shift through the complexity of their world. She is helping them to prioritize – to see what piece to pick up and what to leave lie.

Prani tells me her next puzzle is 1000 pieces. What other daily activities would build patience in a leader?  Try waiting in the longest line at the grocery store. Driving in the slow lane. Watching a movie in segments over time. Chewing your food more slowly. Speaking last in a meeting.

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