Leaders Need Time to Think

By: Tamara Lucas Copeland

How one small-staff executive learned to be a better manager by taking time away from the office to read and brainstorm.

Are there some people at your organization who think that if you're not on the computer or on the phone you're not working? I encountered this a few years ago. I had just completed a conference call when my assistant walked by my office and asked, "You OK?" "Yes," I responded. Ten minutes later, he walked by again and asked the same question. "Yes, I'm OK," I answered again. "Well, what are you doing?" he asked. "Thinking," I answered.

It was clear my behavior was unexpected and unusual to him, prompting me to think how remarkable it is that most of us have been programmed to believe that thinking isn't working and that reading a profession-related book is something that we are supposed to do outside of business hours.

As executives, and particularly as small-staff CEOs, we have mastered multitasking. We participate on conference calls while reading and responding to emails. We use iPads and other tools to record decisions and discussions during meetings—listening, writing, and, oh yes, tweeting to our followers simultaneously. We rush from one meeting to the next while returning that important call on our smartphone. We are constantly doing, doing, doing as a way of providing visual cues of "working" to others.

In our haste to act, we don't give ourselves permission to do what our boards have actually hired us to do: Synthesize a wide array of information as a part of the act of leading. They want us to attend those meetings, talk with colleagues, and know what academicians are writing in journal articles or posting on their blogs, because they expect us to discern trends, envision a future, develop a strategy, and move from the theoretical to the practical implementation of a viable plan of action. None of these are possible without reading or quietly thinking while in the office.

For years, I felt my success came from my ability to multitask, make decisions quickly, and coordinate efforts that had implications and impact on multiple layers. Projects were planned; work was assigned; articles were quickly skimmed. There were accomplishments—important ones—or so I thought. It wasn't until I had a remarkable board chair who gave me permission to read and think that I allowed myself to do so. She told me that sometimes I was stuck in the weeds, too focused on doing. I was caught in the proverbial paradox of outputs, while I thought I was having significant outcomes. I needed to free my mind to think, and think expansively, about what could be.

Not only did she encourage me to sit quietly in my office and think, even when my staff might find my behavior odd, but she also allowed me to leave my office and sit on the beach and read books and articles that had piled up on my desk for months. She told me I could read industry-related journals in parks and that I could feel the sun on my skin at the beach or the breeze off the Potomac River during business hours as I read or thought about what was possible. This wasn't shirking my responsibilities, she told me. Instead, this was my responsibility: to learn, to think, to plan, and then to act.

I extend similar opportunities to my staff. I asked each of them to read a book related to their area of work or philanthropy by the end of the year and write a review for our biweekly newsletter. I also remind folks, particularly when our computers occasionally go down, that that is an ideal time to read and think about their work.

Before this board chair, I was a solid manager. The trains ran on time. Routine maintenance occurred and occasionally there was even a new route. Now I have evolved into a leader: a person with an informed vision who has a strategic sense of the future and who is working toward a broad goal of what is possible. Reading and quietly thinking at work has become a regular part of my work week, and every now and then I even allow myself to leave the office during business hours. When that happens and I appear to be staring into space, there are only the sand crabs to wonder, "What is she doing?"

Tamara Lucas Copeland is president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Small-Staff Stats

Name: Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers
Location: Washington, DC
Staff Size: 7 full-time employees, 4 part-time consultants
Members: 100
Budget: $1.23 million

Tamara Lucas Copeland

Tamara Lucas Copeland is president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers in Washington, DC.