Friday, June 5, 2015

Is "Strategic Patience" Feasible for 21st Century Leaders?

"In the new world, it is not the big fish which eats the small fish, It’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish" -Professor Klaus Schwab, WEF Founder and Executive Chairman

Last week I had the TV humming in the background and was passively listening to the random noise when I heard two words combined that hadn't registered in my mind before. Right away I began actively listening to learn more about the context of the phrase. 

Naturally I had to google it and was surprised that it returned ~2 million hits! Why hadn't I heard this phrase before? Perhaps I just never paid attention when it was being said. With piqued curiosity I had to research it to find out more. 

The phrase was "strategic patience" and it turned out to be quite loaded. So exactly what does it mean? 

I've come across various definitions like "leading from behind", "passive or purposeful inaction", "wait and see", or "slow and steady". The term showed up over and over with respect to foreign policy strategy which won't be addressed here. Instead I decided to evaluate the context of "strategic patience" against the backdrop of 21st century leadership along with the massive transformations and disruptions that we're facing.

Question: Is "Strategic Patience" feasible for 21st century leaders?

Using the list of definitions as a starting point, it seems counter-intuitive to undertake this kind of approach to leadership these days when we've seen time and time again that businesses which are slow to shift directions are repeatedly being disrupted or destroyed. Yet there are instances where "strategic patience" may be the best approach.

Let's explore.


A. Leading from Behind

A Harvard Business Journal article from several years ago explored what leading from behind looks like in the 21st century. It doesn't mean that leaders are standing by and doing nothing. Rather these savvy leaders engage and enable their flock to do their best work instead of trampling others' ideas in favor of their own.

Effective 21st century leaders work to make success possible by selecting the best and brightest minds who will innovate and push boundaries in support of a collective mission. However, if the vision is being supplanted by unwanted or unwarranted actions, these leaders will not hesitate to prod their staff until the flock is back on track again.

Leading from behind is an effective strategy for leaders - now and for all ages.Tweet: Leading from behind is an effective strategy for 21st century leaders - and for the ages.


As a leader...I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion.

I always remember the axiom: a leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.

                                                        Nelson Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom [i] 


B. Passive or Purposeful Inaction

Often easy wins can be turned into easy losses when new leaders makes substantial changes without first understanding how existing business systems work. After all, things could be going well right? During the first 90 days of a new leader's tenure, the best approach may be to "listen" and do nothing - as in passive or purposeful inaction. 

There are times when leaders must act decisively to address business challenges. However, decisive action may not always mean swift action. Effective leaders study and reflect on what needs to be done, line up their resources, take nuanced actions, measure outcomes, adjust their approach, and move on to the next objective. 

Passive or purposeful inaction is about doing the right things right - at the right time. Listening is one of those right things.Tweet: Passive or purposeful inaction is about doing the right things right - at the right time.


Listening is a leadership responsibility that does not appear in the job description. Those who do listen to their employees are in a much better position to lead the increasingly diverse and multigenerational workforce.

The "one-approach-fits-all" way of thinking has become outdated and those who embrace the high art of listening are destined to be better, more compassionate leaders 

Forbes: Effective Listening for Leaders  [ii]


C. Wait and See

When immediate responses to problems are necessary, adopting a 'wait and see' posture can often spell disaster. Today it only takes one negative tweet to bring a brand to its knees through the clever use of trending hashtags. 

Inc. Magazine cataloged the Top 10 Social Media failures last year. By the time companies took action to correct the situations the damage had already been done to their brands. Wait and see? Definitely not an effective leadership strategy with respect to social media timing.

John Maxwell points out in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership - The Law of Timing (#19) that "when to lead is as important as what to do and where to go." 

Maxwell used the leadership response (or lack thereof) for Hurricane Katrina to describe what happens when approaches like 'wait and see' are used in the worst possible way. The outcome was one our most memorable 21st century disasters.

'Wait and see' can be disastrous. Use with caution!Tweet: 'Wait and see' can be disastrous. Use with caution!


D. Slow and Steady

When performing intricate experiments, dynamic operations, or complex transformations - 'slow and steady' may often be the best approach. The tortoise in the famous Aesop's fable reached its destination through deliberate, thoughtful actions and won the race whereas the hare moved quickly, taking his speed and cunning for granted while making lots of mistakes along the way. Does the fable still ring true today?

In general fast and reckless decision making is never a good approach. However, taking deliberate and thoughtful actions like the hare at fast speeds like the rabbit is an approach that many leaders won't argue is a solid approach given today's rapid shifts. The challenge is to determine the appropriate 21st century pace. 

Slow and steady is viable. Quick and steady is better Tweet: Slow and steady is viable. Quick and steady is better.


It took decades for the telephone to reach 50% of households, beginning before 1900.  It took five years or less for cellphones to accomplish the same penetration in 1990...

It took 30 years for electricity and 25 years for telephones to reach 10% adoption but less than five years for tablet devices to achieve the 10% rate.  It took an additional 39 years for telephones to reach 40% penetration and another 15 before they became ubiquitous. 

Smart phones, on the other hand, accomplished a 40% penetration rate in just 10 years, if we time the first smart phone’s introduction from the 2002 shipment of the first BlackBerry

Harvard Business Review [iv] 


When I began examing this topic I couldn't fathom how "strategic patience" would ever be the best approach for leaders given the pace of change that we're experiencing right now. The sentiment expressed by Professor Schwab certainly gives one pause when thinking about taking it slow and steady. However, wisdom prevails and patience still works - in business and in life. 

There are times when it's best to move fast and there are times when it's best to move slow and steady - or not at all. Leaders have to pace themselves.

With the pressure to stay ahead, when is it best for leaders to exercise "strategic patience"?

Add your thoughts and insights in the comments section then like or share this article to keep the conversation going.

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