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Leadership: The obligation to do nothing

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On January 9, 2019

For a leadership member, doing nothing seems like heresy. Throughout this article, we will see why this activity is crucial to ensure great productivity and allow teams to work well.


The leader must be in action

Often the image we have of a business leader is a frenetic race mixing meetings, phone calls, business lunches, and briefings. The “What do CEO do?” study confirms that CEO’s are rarely alone for the 50 hours or more they work on average. They spend about 85% of their time with other people including no less than 60% dedicated to meetings only. It is safe to say that the lives of the CEO and other members of the top leadership are very busy.

Naturally, this seems to us a guarantee of efficiency and professionalism. But let’s take a little time to ask ourselves and think about it. What is the role of a leader? Must he be a person who provides solutions and who directs his collaborators in order to reach the objectives? Or is it someone who makes sure that the work done by his or her staff can be the most productive and the most in line with the company’s project?


Two visions of the leadership

These two notions of leadership compete. We have a “classic” manager on the one hand. On the other hand, we have what Robert K. Greenleaf calls “servant leadership”. The leader puts himself at the service of his subordinates. If we consider the “classic” manager, then yes having a busy life is a positive sign. Yet we believe that the leadership role is evolving more and more in the direction of the second type. For the rest of this article, we, therefore, consider that the leader has this new role. He is mainly responsible for the framework in which the project of the company runs almost independently.


Spaces of inaction

So the main question of the article is to understand why in the context of this new leadership posture one would especially need to do nothing? To clarify the sentence, doing nothing here means not being in action. And it also means being letting go the human need to control situations. We will see that by allowing ourselves just to be present to the listening of oneself and the collective, the leader, but also any person who dares will open new spaces which will be able to enrich the project of the organization. We identify here several space-times, but the list can be enriched with other elements.


Learning time

The leader must learn constantly. He must remain in a position of curiosity and openness to new possibilities. When he learns a new skill or discovers a different understanding of the world in which he lives, it will allow him to continue to maintain the plasticity of his brain. It will also allow him to consider his reality from a slightly different angle.


Learning is brave because we always question some of what we know. And to learn is essential because, as Einstein says so well, “ Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving. “.


Introspection time

The leader inspires. He is the source of energy that radiates and illuminates his team. For this, he must be attentive to himself. It will allow him to bring forth this energy and better orient his thoughts and actions towards the future. He is going to draw from the depths of himself that energy which is the source of his intuitions and his vision of possible futures. During this time, he feels what animates him, motivates him and works to create the posture necessary for his mission. It is during these moments that he will be able to fully explore his emotions, not to make them disappear, but to serve as useful clues to the understanding of complex situations that the rational mind alone can not effectively address.


The time of introspection is also important to calm the mind. We all have thousands of thoughts that follow one another. These thoughts are often related to the expression of the ego that makes us say that we are the best or on the contrary that we are not worth much or that someone is really not that smart or … These multiple thoughts disrupt our worldview and unfortunately reinforce our certainty.


Taking quiet time, through meditation or any other technique, will help to become aware of these thoughts and mitigate their impact on our understanding of situations. This will reduce our natural tendency to judge. It can also reduce our need for immediate action. These and other impacts will allow us to be much more present and become a mature player in the collective.


Listening time

Doing nothing during meetings will change the listening level. Using a level of empathic listening or even better a generative listening as explained by Otto Scharmer (Lecturer at MIT), the leader will be part of a much more global vision of the situation.


In general, it is always important to understand what level of listening we are in:

  • Downloading: What I hear only serves to confirm what I already know. I do not look further.
  • Factual: We are in a position to acquire new information that will modify what we already know and better understand the situation of the other.
  • Empathic: It’s a real dialogue in which I can fully listen to myself and the other. The center of gravity comes out of me and allows me to feel the situation.
  • Generative: I can not describe in words the experience I live. I am connected to something that is bigger than me and that shows me in a strong and comprehensive way different possible futures.

The technique of Gemba Walk, dear to lean management, which asks the leader to go every day “to walk” in the areas where the activity takes place is part of these listening moments. The leader must come out of a “check-list” approach in order to be able to feel the reality of the ground either by its senses, dialogues or dashboards. He must not be in action.


Empowering employees

In order to empower his employees, the leader will have to adopt a different posture that he will work during his moments of introspection or with a coach. Fully present it will not be there to provide solutions but to question employees to make them aware of certain aspects they would have forgotten or even better to highlight their positive impact on the collective and the discovery of solutions. Empowerment goes through some erasure but without completely disappearing. Being constantly in action does not allow finding that delicate balance between listening, openness, global understanding, and intervention.


Creation time

Employees are often asked to be creative. For this, brainstorming meetings are organized during which innovation support tools are made available. Many companies even promote intrapreneurship. Yet we often forget that one of the bases of creativity is listening to oneself and the deep motivation in us. The collective by creating being moments for the individuals or the group will build space-time that will allow real creativity to express itself. This will cause the group to leave the framework of short, easy and risk-free solutions to enter, supported by trust and autonomy, in a new field of possible futures.


Create meaning

The leader must bring meaning. A large majority of employees request it. If he does not give himself time to feel the deepest reasons of things, how can he pass it on? The leader here has a vital role that makes him a committed promoter of projects. These are legitimized by their adequacy with the mission and the values company integrated into the DNA of the actions carried out by all the collaborators.

Is this realistic?

One might wonder if this is not a utopian version of leadership. I think instead that it is the future that is emerging. From all sides, we see that the current model shows its limits and that new approaches are in the process of maturation. Talk to members of associations, the world of start-ups or other companies that have decided to change the managerial styles and you will feel all the strength that emerges from this new approach to leadership.



Doing nothing and allowing yourself to be is ultimately the best way to listen to yourself and the collective. This listening has become indispensable in our modern societies to be able to apprehend the complex situations in which we evolve. Doing nothing is also the best solution to be able to feel the future who want to emerge and choose the one that best meets the needs. By spending more time to be, we will greatly facilitate the period of doing that follows.


Let’s stop being in continuous hyper-action and let’s release the forces that allow us to have maximum impact on the future.

Last modified: January 9, 2019

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