Change your language

May 21, 2018

A friend of mine is fond of saying that ‘time is the currency of leadership’.

If that is true, then most leaders I know do not have much currency (including my friend who says that).

If time is indeed the currency of leadership, then how can we best invest our precious capital? How can we maximize the time we have to ‘lead’?

Let us start by talking about time.

(If being busy is really important to you, you may want to stop reading now.)

We can all get hooked on being busy. As a leader, you are supposed to be incredibly busy. It is an expectation. I am not trying to take that away from you. You are busy. No doubt. There is a lot to get done.

In reality, though, we do make choices about our time and how we spend it.

“We struggle with, agonize over, and bluster heroically about the great questions of life when the answer to most of these lie hidden in our attitude toward the thousand minor details of each day.”

– Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living

We are controlled by our perceptions of time. This perception of uncontrollable busyness and lack of time gets reinforced every time we say, ‘I am too busy,’ or ‘There is no time for that,’ or ‘I have gotten 52 emails while we have been sitting here’. Our attitude toward time really is reflected in our ‘attitude toward the thousand minor details of each day’.

Our perception of our lack of control over time gives us cover for making bad decisions, for taking shortcuts we know we should not take, and for avoiding the real work that may be in front of us. We give in to the drive for short-term solutions instead of investing in the long-term resolutions that could save us time in the long run.

Some things do take longer. Many of the things that matter take a long time. Evolution takes generations. Honoring time by paying attention to when things are really ripe for conversation, decision, or action actually saves time in the long run.

If time was not an easy excuse, if we really considered our attitudes toward the ‘thousand minor details of each day’ and made decisions about how we spend our time, how might those decisions play out differently over the longer term?

Sometimes, yes, there are surprises and we do not have time to do what we would like to do. And, absolutely, there are times when we need to stop talking about things and make a decision. More often than not, though, we do not have time now because of a myriad of choices we made in the past about how we spent our time. Those decisions have led up to this moment.

What if we accept that we have more control over time than we think we do, so that we can be bold in our decisions about how we spend our time? Then we move toward eliminating time as an excuse for poor decisions and reckless action.

Let us assume that you are inspired to consider changing your language about time. You are going to try saying things like, “I am choosing to do this instead of that right now,” instead of “I don’t have time for that right now,” or “I am going to intentionally spend my time doing this right now,” instead of mindlessly doing whatever pops up and appears urgent in the moment.

Now what will you choose to do with your time?

Most of the time ‘leadership’ feels like another thing we have to do…just one more task on our already overwhelming to-do list.

What if leadership is not something you do? What if leadership is someone you are?

If that is the case, then every time you walk into a room you are leading. Every time you attend a meeting, every time you say something (or choose not to say something), every time you interact with an individual or group of people, you are leading.

And if that is the case, you have all the time in the world. So how are you leading?

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.”

– Paulo Coelho

What is the example you are setting? How are you choosing to show up? Are you showing up as your best self? All of the time?

“Who do I want to be right now?” is a very different question than, “What do I want to do right now?”

So, who do you want to be right now?

Think of someone you admire a great deal. They could be a teacher, parent, spouse, or friend, a boss or colleague, a fictional character, or a figure from history. Think of a number of people you admire. What is it that you admire about them? What is it about them that you would desperately like to be able to display in your own interactions with people?

Asking yourself, “Who do I want to be right now?” is a way of expanding your expectations of yourself, of setting an aspirational goal for how you will show up, and then being able to choose to show up that way.

For me, the person I most want to be like is my friend Jim McLeod. Jim was an associate chancellor at the university I attended, and he was a friend of mine for many years until he died of cancer at the age of 67. All of us who knew Jim (and there were thousands over his 30- plus years at the university) have ‘Jim-isms’ that we refer to regularly. My personal favorite is “All greatness comes from goodness.” It is posted on the bulletin board above my desk.

It was always true that Jim took time to reach out to people. It did not matter how late he was or how frustrating it was for the people walking with him or waiting for him at his destination. It did not matter if it was freezing cold outside or 100 degrees. It did not matter that he had raging cancer—which he did. Walking across campus and talking to people along the way was Jim’s choice about how he showed up on that campus, in that culture, and in the world. He made that choice every single day—and how he showed up made a difference every single day.

There were nearly 5,000 people at Jim’s funeral service. We came from all over the world, each of us actively doing our best to show up in the ways that Jim had demonstrated for us. Students, faculty, and other administrators had been inspired by how he showed up, and so they did the same. Through Jim’s example, the campus built an international reputation based on its caring and inclusive culture.

I am sure there were days when Jim was not perfectly “on.” I am sure there were days when it was hard to show up in those ways. I know there were days when he was not physically able to do what he wanted to do.

I also know that I could always count on Jim to be doing his best. He was always reaching into a reservoir, a zone of genius, where he was crystal clear about who he was and how he wanted to show up in the world.

And the best part? Showing up as your best self requires only a split second longer than not showing up as your best self. And it usually saves you time later.

You can shrink-wrap your leadership into the small box of getting things done (lots of successful people do). Or you can be humble in the face of the vast learning required of leaders and recognize that being—showing up as your best possible self—is now what you do.

Will you choose to embark on a journey toward becoming the kind of leader you aspire to be? Or will you convince yourself that you do not really have time for all that ‘leadership stuff ’?

I challenge you to take the leap.