Great Leaders Know When To Stand Still

A leader is always moving forward–or is he? Sometimes, the best move is to stand firm.

Great Leaders Know When To Stand Still

In the 1990s, as educational publishing was confronting the arrival of technology in the classroom, I was invited by the president of a successful K-12 (kindergarten through twelfth grade) publishing business to help him manage the rapidly unfolding changes. The president, Frank, intended to shift his business away from an editorial-centered approach toward a marketing-driven model designed to adapt to emerging technology, and leading the organization through the change was going to be traumatic and tough.


After many weeks of planning and analysis, Frank and his staff produced a top-notch change-management plan called “The Future Is Now.” Technology trends were reviewed; competitors were assessed; markets were quantified, financials tightened, and time lines set. A central problem loomed, however: how do we get the forty-person editorial team to relinquish control, embrace technological innovation, and drive the change?

During a meeting between Frank, the sales vice president, and the three editorial directors, we all mapped out a plan.

“We’ll be launching ‘The Future Is Now’ at our annual sales meeting in two months,” the sales VP announced, “and our regional managers are already reviewing the new tools. Of course, there’s a lot more to do on product knowledge, samples, demos, and the like, but we are moving along quite well.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear you’re ready,” said one of the editorial directors with a sigh. “Since we are producing the product you are going to sell, maybe you can let us in on how the plan works.”

While the tension lingered, another editorial director piped up.

“It would be nice to have a launch for our editorial teams, like the sales force gets. Our staff hears a lot about ‘The Future Is Now,’ but not the specifics. The future may be now for sales, but it keeps being a surprise for us.”


“Well, maybe we should do something different this year,” suggested Frank. “This rollout of the new business model is probably the most important change in our past twenty years, and taking a new approach may be just what we need.”

“For my part,” I said, “I think inviting all forty editorial staff to attend the sales meeting would send just the right message: that we are all in this together. Plus, we would all know that everyone — sales, marketing, and editorial — had received the same marching orders. I think it would be an excellent team-building opportunity.”

When the morning arrived for the large group meeting, we had an added surprise. The chairman of the company had heard about the off-site and wanted to come along too. He was impressed by Frank’s business plan and was equally impressed with how Frank intended to launch it at the sales meeting with all the editorial, marketing, and sales force in attendance. Frank had been nervous about the meeting to begin with, but now he was silently having his doubts. Not only were we going to air our dirty laundry, we were now going to do it in front of the chairman of the entire company.

“Everyone here was asked to fill out a short survey before today, and over ninety percent of you shared your views, so thank you,” I began. “Let’s take a look at what we all said.”

As I referred to an overhead projector displayed on a large screen, I said, “Here’s an item the editorial team addressed: ‘I believe the sales force values my opinion on how best to present curriculum and educational materials to the customer.’ And how did the editorial team respond? Eight out of ten disagreed or highly disagreed with this statement.”

“This is a very powerful statement,” I said, summarizing. “Eighty percent of us here who make the product for our customer feel that their views are not valued by the people who sell the very same product to the very same customer. Anyone want to clarify this?”


A long silence came over the room, and finally an editor raised her hand. I handed her the microphone.

“I think it’s even worse than not being valued,” she fumed. “Not one marketing piece has ever included wording, design, or headlines recommended by anyone on our team. We’re just flat ignored. I wish the marketing people would stop asking us for our opinion.”

Then the floodgates opened.

The back-and-forth went on for sixty minutes, and the discussion was contentious and robust. Grievances were aired, opinions were shared, feathers were ruffled, and some voices were raised. And through it all, Frank sat up straight, clearly on edge as the chairman occasionally wrote a note or leaned over to share a remark.

“OK, let’s take a break,” I announced to the group. “This has been a powerful discussion, and we’ll pick it up again in twenty minutes.”

As the group slowly left the room to refresh their coffee and make some business calls, Frank took me aside out of earshot and he was panicked.


“This is a disaster, Michael, and this discussion is ruining my company!” he fumed with clenched teeth.

“Let me ask you a question, Frank,” I interrupted. “What do you think the team needs from you right now?”

“They need me to get control of this and get the genie back in the bottle!” he bristled.

“What they need from you right now, Frank, is for you to lead,” I spoke pointedly. “And that means be a flagpole!”

“Look, your organization is disoriented and off its game right now. You know it, they know it, and the numbers in our survey show it. The organization has to face its confusion, sort it out, and resolve issues, and that’s exactly what they’re doing this morning. But when they look to you, they need to know it’s all right. They need to have something they can look to that orients them, that lets them know that despite the difficulties and confusion, they are moving in the right direction. They need a flagpole, Frank, and you are it.”

He began to calm down.


“You’ve asked your people to take a risk today, and they have. They are speaking their minds openly and honestly for the first time in a long time. And to do that in front of you and your boss takes courage, and that means they trust you. You’re their flagpole; you are what they can look to, letting them know that they can take risks, speak their minds, and confront difficulties. This is how it feels to lead, Frank, and instead of panicking, may I suggest that you take note of what you see.”

I led him out toward the coffee line.

“What do you see, Frank?” I asked. “Take a good look at your people and tell me what you see.”

We both surveyed the room. People were animated, talking, and laughing. We noticed editors speaking with sales reps; marketing specialists sharing coffee with editors; and two sales managers chatting intently with an editorial director. The chairman was sitting with several sales reps and two editors, talking, nodding, and listening.

When Frank brought the group together in order to close, he asked, “What did we learn this morning? Anyone want to sum this up?”

After a few people offered some final remarks, a young sales rep stood up.


“I joined this company from one of our main competitors two months ago. I’d heard so much about what a great publishing house this was, but I never really knew until today. This meeting took a lot of guts — nobody runs meetings like this. We all got a true picture of one another today. We didn’t just go over slide decks and business plans; we told each other the truth, and I, for one, want to thank you, Frank, for having the confidence in us to have this discussion. I learned more this morning about my team than I could have in years of meetings and telephone calls. We’ve got a long way to go, but I am looking forward to doing it with this team.”

The slogan “Be a flagpole” reminds us that leadership is not always moving forward, getting it done, and driving for results. Sometimes it requires us to stop and simply be — often in the midst of the most difficult circumstances. Such a gesture can orient those pressed by daily demands and reassure those willing to step out and take a risk. And if we were to pause and “be a flagpole” for a moment, we may notice that by simply stopping we are showing confidence in our colleagues and getting a truly wide view of how to be fearless at work.

Related: How Empathy Paves The Way For Innovation.

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From Fearless at Work, by Michael Carroll, © 2012 by Michael Carroll. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA.

Michael Carroll, author of Fearless at Work, worked on Wall Street and in the publishing industry for over two decades, holding executive positions at Shearson Lehman Brothers, Paine Webber, Simon & Schuster, and the Walt Disney Company. Founding director of AAW Associates, Carroll consults with major corporations on bringing mindfulness into the workplace. He is a longtime student of Buddhist meditation and an authorized teacher in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa. Carroll has taught mindfulness meditation at the Wharton School of Business, Columbia University, Kripalu, and the Cape Cod Institute.


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[Image: Flickr user Thomas Hawk]