Leaders are supposed to hit the ground running when they take a new job, quickly gathering information, evaluating personnel, and putting their transformation plan into action by the 90-day mark. Abraham Lincoln, who faced one of the more difficult transitions to power with the nation disintegrating after his election and states seceding even before he took office, by constitutional necessity had to move very slowly. Maybe there’s something to be learned from his experience and other slow transitions that defy instinct and the leadership gurus.
Lincoln was elected in November, but only inaugurated five months later. He was stranded in Illinois, far from Washington and his future cabinet members elsewhere in the country, in an era without even phones, let alone Zoom. The administration of James Buchanan was at a standstill, with the vice-president and three cabinet ministers soon to join the Confederacy, the secretary of war even siphoning armaments to the South. There was talk of the Confederates seizing Washington and declaring themselves the rightful national leaders. And you thought you have encountered some tough transitions!
Lincoln visited his vice-president by train, named his team and wrote his inaugural address. Finally, as the inauguration neared, he set out on a 13-day train trip to Washington amidst fears he would be assassinated before he took the oath of office. Indeed, opponents attempted to derail his train; a grenade was found in his coach 15 minutes before it would explode; and there were so many different plans to assassinate him at the Baltimore choke point where he had to change trains that his schedule was secretly switched to get through town early and in disguise, his stovepipe hat replaced by a soft wool cap. And you thought some of the new employees in your last transition were a little hostile!
The train trip got him moving, both literally and figuratively. “Lincoln could restore the vigour of the office [of the presidency] after a season in which it had nearly vanished,” writes historian Ted Widmer in Lincoln on the Verge, a detailed account of that trip. He met with key allies along the route, but just as importantly made a connection to the people he would lead. Lincoln was fairly unknown to them and not hugely popular, having attracted just 39 per cent of the vote. But they could see him up close and shake his hand, getting a feel for the man as he stopped at small villages and large cities. Mostly he offered informal, homespun talks but near the end, in New York, Trenton, N.J., and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence had been drafted, he gave powerful speeches outlining the framework of how he intended to govern.
In some ways he was following common patterns of leadership transitions, of course, but he was doing so slowly, comfortable in the moment, not in a rush to manoeuvre and pull the levers of power.
Novelist Lee Child says his only writing rule is that authors have to write the slow parts fast and the fast parts slow. “You can spend pages on pulling the trigger,” he says in Andy Martin’s Reacher Said Nothing. It’s slow motion, an event seen (and understood) from many angles. Maybe leaders similarly need to slow the fast things down for better understanding. That could apply to transitions such as when Canada’s premiers fire the starter’s gun and the race back to a more normal workplace begins. “Let’s not make our mistakes in a hurry,” former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower used to say.
Patrick Deane took a slower approach when he became president of McMaster University in 2010 and, more recently, principal of Queen’s University in the summer of 2019. Instead of rushing to make changes, he began a conversation within the university to identify the culture of the institution. At Queen’s, he held town halls but also met with small groups, on general and specific topics, visited departments and had many one-on-one chats. All universities have two prime missions: Educate young people and advance knowledge. But each must do it differently, consistent with the culture and history. And he feels when leaders move too quickly, not paying sufficient attention to those elements, they may make superficial gains but those gains won’t hold. “If you want meaningful change you have to be patient in how you institute it and watch how it takes effect,” he said in an interview.
And while universities are different from corporations, he still believes this approach could apply more broadly, because in the end all institutions and change efforts are complex and about human beings. So consider patience to make enduring change.
- Consultant Mike Vardy learned that if you rush baked goods, quality suffers. The same goes for many other things, so he urges you to set aside the notion “move fast and break things” in favour of “move slow and bake things.”
- Entrepreneur Steve Blank warns that closing complex deals through video is difficult because it’s hard to read a meeting as effectively as in person.
- Henry Mintzberg, the McGill University management professor who over the years has supplied contrarian thinking about the daily life of managers, strategic planning and MBA training, has turned his eye to the pandemic in a series of blog posts and argues while “to open or not to open is now the question,” that could be “dead wrong, carrying us straight into the lose-lose trap.”
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