Pause and allow

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May 09 2024 by Neil Jurd Print This Article

I recently bumped into a friend. He asked how I was. I said "Busy." He said "Good", and nodded approvingly. Because we think busy is good. We associate it with success, pulling our weight, being useful.

But sometimes we forget the dark side of busy. For most of us busy means bad sleep and poor nutrition, the stress of not having enough time to do things really well, and never having enough time to think. This is the busy of back ache and burnout.

I have worked in leadership and team development for many years and have trained thousands of people. Most of them are busy, in one way or the other. So how can leaders avoid the dark side of busy? How can they learn to be effective without becoming overloaded?

The key to leading well is working smarter, not harder. We are stuck in a way of working that is relentless and seems to be gathering pace. New technology overwhelms our prehistoric brains. Technology and expectation combine to create an approach to leadership where leaders need to be in every loop and control every detail – because they can.

Leaders become overloaded with unfiltered information, which means they lose sight of what's important. Working this way leads to unfocused busyness, with leaders feeling obliged to attend every meeting, check every email, and grasp every detail.

This level of connection and control is seductive, but toxic. It has laid a trap and we have fallen into it. It's a busy that makes us less: less happy, less resilient, less productive.

Effective leadership is very different from this. One of the most important traits of the effective leader is having the confidence, trust and strength to stay out of the detail. Effective leaders know how to pause – to step back from the chaos and create the time and space to think and plan – and to allow, by which I mean get out of the way, giving others the authority and freedom to think and decide.

During the first Covid lockdown, over a few terrifying days I lost almost all my work. No meetings, no long drives, no courses, no deadlines. I developed a routine that involved getting up later than usual, sitting in the sun and exercising. I went for walks and performed badly in a few online quizzes.

I had the time and space to think. And it was magical: possibly something that hadn't happened since I was a child. After a couple of weeks, I felt relaxed and well. And this set the conditions for creativity – I started to write.  Over the next few months I wrote a book about leadership and wrote the scripts for 30 videos about leadership. 

Covid gave me the time and space I would never have allowed myself – a break that made me more productive than if I had carried on. I needed that break, in order to create. I'd wanted to write for years, but lockdown gave me permission to stop and it set the conditions for creativity. Being forced to pause led to the most productive and creative period in my working life.

When you think about pauses, you soon realise they are everywhere. In motorsport, think how going into the pitstop means interrupting progress, seeming to fall behind the race, in order to come out stronger. And you see this concept in every form of art. The sculptor Charles Hadcock deliberately creates work that appears incomplete. This void, as he describes it, is actually engaging for the viewer.

In music some would argue that the pauses are as important as the notes. Think how they are used: to give performers a rest to recover. To give the audience time to make sense of the performance. And to change the pace and flow of the performance. You know that wonderful anticipation you feel in a pause in your favourite piece of music, when you know what's coming next and you feel it in your whole body? That's what a pause is for.

Most of us prefer noise and activity to silence. Maybe that goes back to primeval times when the reassuring chatter and sound of the campfire told us we were safe. But these days it's the wrong sort of chatter, and we need to switch it off. We need to make sure that we pause to recover – to take a break between jobs, to stretch our legs, relax and maybe have healthy food and drink.

Essentially it is about creating space. We could shut the door and put music on, or go for a walk, or just work from an inspiring location. And we pause to think, clearing our heads of the detail and seeing what ideas and possibilities fill the void. Of course, to pause well we need time. Busy people will often say there aren't enough hours in the day, but there always are – but we are filling them with low-value activity.

So how do we step off the treadmill and find the time we need to become happier, less stressed, and more productive?

One of the best ways to create time is to be brave and control less. Replace the concept of control with the concept of allow. Even when you say "allow", it seems to open up possibilities. Just as the word "control" closes them down.

Allow is an approach where the leader resists the urge to control detail and generate activity, and instead gives freedom and space to team members to think, decide and act in pursuit of a clearly defined objective.

I recently asked the head of a large school, "What would happen if you didn't come to work tomorrow?" After an uncomfortable pause, he answered "Nothing." Then I asked, what if he didn't come in for two days? This time he smiled and said, "Probably nothing." I asked him to expand. He said that his team was competent, they knew what they were doing, and when he thought about it they would actually quite like him not being around and bothering them.

It's quite a relief to understand that things would run perfectly well without us. Last

year I took a powerboat handling course on Lake Windermere. We were heading towards a hotel on the other side of the lake. It was a cold, sunny day with almost no breeze.

I was standing at the wheel, and my only objective was to go in a straight line. But whatever I did, the boat wouldn't stay straight. It went right, so I corrected. It went left, so I corrected. The instructor didn't say anything, but I felt his presence, like Obi-Wan Kenobi in shorts. I could see a wry smile; the smile of a man who has seen this all before. And he said to me, "Neil, take your hand off the wheel." So I did. And guess what? No, we didn't sink. The boat settled and went perfectly straight.

It's so tempting to try to control things we don't need to, but it wastes so much energy. Most people work better without too much control. Control casts a shadow where nothing grows. Once they're clear about what the objective is, generally the more freedom people are given, the more energised and creative they will be.

To cast no shadow and allow things to thrive, we have to direct less. Speak less. Decide less. This will mean being in fewer loops, being copied in less, and having fewer meetings. Even describing that environment brings my heart rate down.

Now is the time to focus on working in a more sustainable way. A way that is MORE. More happy. More resilient. More productive. As the American General Hal Moore said, "there is always one more thing you can do to influence a situation in your favour… and after that there is one more thing."

Well for me, that thing is learning to pause, and learning to allow.

About The Author

Neil Jurd
Neil Jurd

Neil Jurd OBE is the founder of Leader Connect, a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership, and Entrepreneur in Residence at Lancaster University Management School. He is also the author of 'The Leadership Book', which has been widely endorsed. During his time in the Army, Neil taught leadership at the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.