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Patience isn't always a virtue. Here's how impatient leaders cut through bureaucracy and get things done.

Feb 7 to April 18, 2023 Group leadership course
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Most people view impatience as a negative trait, especially in leaders. Everyone is familiar with the trope of the unreasonably demanding boss who puts undue pressure on their teams, underestimates how much time and effort things take, and who always wants it done faster and with fewer people. But when you’re trying to get stuff done in a corporate environment where layers of process and bureaucracy have caked on over time, impatience can power progress in what’s most important.

In leaders, impatience can actually be borne out of a combination of positive traits. Impatience is an expression of ambition and optimism – a belief that we can get ahead more quickly. It’s an innate sense of urgency that the clock is ticking, that each day that passes with too little movement is a threat to progress overall. It’s a belief that things can happen more quickly than everyone is assuming, and a desire to cut through those assumptions and achieve outcomes that move everyone forward. It’s the opposite of apathy.

‘Time is the fire in which we burn.’ - Delmore Schwartz

Impatient leaders know in their bones that key stakeholders and high performers aren’t going to sit on their hands and wait around for very long. Priorities shift, enthusiasm wanes, needs change, project fatigue threatens. While we should all strive to be professional, collaborative, and understanding of the constraints everyone must work within in order to get things done, respectful but relentless pressure fueled by impatience moves big projects along – especially software efforts.

Impatience, when channeled well, can be an antidote to bloat, overwrought process, and unnecessary dependencies. Here are a few reasons why impatience is a virtue for leaders, teammates, and anyone trying to get stuff done.

Impatience clarifies the ‘why‘

Over time, projects inside big organizations tend to snowball, especially if there’s momentum. The more people involved in a project, the higher the risk that pet priorities get added on.

‘While we’re doing X, we should really address Y – it’s been bugging us forever and we might as well deal with it. While we’re working on Y, shouldn’t we make sure we loop in group A? This touches their world and they may want to reconsider how they do Q, R, and S as a result. And before we make our recommendations, let’s get buy-in from groups B and C, because they work together on Z, which relates to X and Y.’

The next thing you know, the whole point of project X has been lost. The original intentions of the effort are muddled (‘I thought we were solving for Y?’), and work is paused because Sam from three departments over is on vacation so a key meeting can’t happen till next Thursday.

Impatience begs a simple question on a regular basis: ‘How do we get X done more quickly?’ This question centers everyone on what you’re working on and why. Deadlines are also a clarifying force. Given a clear deadline, another way to frame the question is: ‘What would have to be true in order to deliver X by Friday?’ Impatience does away with the extras, the pet priorities, and the nice-to-haves, and whittles a project down to the most important outcome.

Impatience clears blockers

Impatient leaders interrogate why something is taking longer than it should, and when they do, blockers stand out in sharp relief: ‘Why does a release take six weeks to go out? Why hasn’t the approver signed off yet? Why hasn’t IT given Charlie access to the files?’

Engaged leaders will ask these questions sooner rather than later, because they’ve honed a finely-tuned sense of how long things take, informed by years of experience. The alarm in their head goes off when things are taking too long, and they know they have to identify the blocker and resolve it.

Sometimes, with the right leverage, it’s possible to put pressure on the blocking item and clear it. Sometimes, impatience prompts this question: ‘How do we get this done without that?’ Dropping a dependency entirely can add constraints to a project, but constraints spur new ways of thinking that can lead to a more efficient approach that has the same outcome.

Sometimes, you do have to wait for a blocker to resolve. In that case, ask: ‘What other work streams can we make progress on while we wait? Is there anything else we can parallelize to compensate for this pause? How can we prepare for steps seven and eight while we’re waiting on this step six blocker?’

Impatience aligns priorities

The world changes fast, and so do organizational priorities. As a result, when work is already in motion, high-impact projects can start to queue up behind lower-impact projects. When a leader sees this, impatience and frustration flare up – and that’s when the important work of alignment can happen.

In an ideal world, everyone would always be aligned on the big, strategic priorities of the company where they work. In reality, most of the time, the people working on an effort don’t completely know how important something is or why it’s that important. When we ask why an effort isn’t moving faster, one of the most common responses is, ‘Everyone’s busy with other work that’s more important.’ So the impatience makes us ask, ‘What work? Is it really more important?’ This friction is where prioritizing happens in reality. It’s a leader’s job to clarify what’s important and why.

Managing your own psychology

As a leader, one of the most difficult skills to learn is how to manage your own psychology. Great leaders often experience a sharp sense of impatience with how slowly things are moving. That’s not a failure. It’s an opportunity to bring clarity, shut down friction, and help your team reach its goals by focusing on high-impact efforts that drive the right results more efficiently.