In Review: Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

We live in a VUCA world (an Army War College acronym that stands for Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex and Ambiguous) and leaders are under more pressure than ever to find a successful route through this daunting environment. There is no shortage of leadership literature aimed at prescribing actions leaders can take to successfully meet the VUCA challenge. But now comes a new book from Kevin Cashman that suggests a slightly radical approach: No action. Rather, pause.

Cashman, a senior partner at Korn/Ferry International and author of “Leadership From the Inside Out,” defines pause as “a universal principle inherent in living, creative systems. It is part of the order, value and growth that arises from slowing down and stepping back. In physics, it is the Second Law of Thermodynamics: ‘As activity lessens, order increases.’ ”

In his new book “The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forward” Cashman suggests that savvy, successful leaders are willing to embrace a concept that seems anathema in organizational settings today: taking a specific and powerful moment to stop, reflect, consider and deliberate before taking action.

“The Pause Principle is the conscious, intentional process of stepping back, within ourselves and outside of ourselves, to lead forward with greater authenticity, purpose and contribution,” Cashman writes.

Sleep, the ultimate example of pause, is a natural, transformative process which scientific research extols as vital but severely lacking in our current whirlwind professional environment. “What sleep is to the mind and body, pause is to leader-ship and innovation,” Cashman writes. Much has been written about the difficulties leaders encounter trying to operate in the pressure-packed 24-hour global marketplace. Quoting Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, from his latest bestseller “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Cashman echoes Kahneman’s admonition that fast thinking can lead to limited options in high-stress situations, forcing leaders to rely on opinions and impressions that make them blind to what they don’t know.

In this slim volume (132 pages), Cashman takes what might seem like a one-note tune, and builds a convincing case, through examples and insight, into the value and rewards of pause. He starts out by suggesting a list of five Pause Points that provide a way to instill “a consistent, intentional manner for reflection by:

  • Building self-awareness and clarity of purpose
  • Exploring new ideas
  • Risking experimentation
  • Questioning, listening, and synthesizing
  • Challenging the status quo, within and around us.

Though it may smack of New Age folderol, the idea of CEOs and other organizational leaders pausing through meditation, daily runs, yoga, retreats and any number of other effective means to reconsider the consequences and direction of their actions is actually catching on. Cashman, a leadership consultant and practitioner himself, recalls a trip he made with his wife to visit the Dalai Lama and sacred sites in India. Frantically focused on getting the manuscript for this book completed, Cashman wrestled with the idea of forgoing the trip. But convinced of its value, the couple embarked on the journey, only to be felled by illness when they reached Delhi. This “forced” pause caused Cashman to acknowledge that “life had other plans; life wanted us to slow down...to stop.” Instead of being discouraged by missing the Dalai Lama, Cashman experienced a week of some of the most creative and prolific writing of his career. Pausing, forced or voluntary, created the space and time to embrace what mattered most.

The book is divided into three parts: growing personal leadership, growing others, and growing cultures of innovation, all by embracing the pause principle. The main strength of Cashman’s volume is the use of timely examples to illustrate his point: show rather than tell.

James, a successful CEO of a multi-billion-dollar global manufacturing organization, seemed to have it all. He was strategic and innovative. But he found that the more he pushed his people, the less responsive they became. They had come to realize that James liked to do it all himself. He preached innovation and collaboration but his behavior said otherwise. With some executive coaching, James began to realize what was happening and what his role was in the process. He saw the incongruence of his behavior and addressed it. “To his credit, James became the change he wanted to see in his organization,” Cashman writes. “James paused, and learned to become more self-aware through self-reflection, which began to unlock his potential, and many of the doorways of his team flew open as well.”

Beyond pausing to inspire personal growth, effective leaders must find a way to grow others in the organization. Cashman recounts work with a CEO who was quite bellicose in self-praise but failed to see how his attitude stifled growth in others within the organization. “His behavior demonstrated he was open to being right. He was open to being the smartest person in the room. He was open to dominating discussions. He was openly critical. However, he was closed to his impact on others,” Cashman writes.

Working with him over several months, Cashman was able to get the executive to pause and learn how to be more receptive, listen more, interfere less. When he realized the power of such behavior, he learned to pause on his own to give others a chance to work out solutions to problems and to express their own ideas. Even the man’s spouse saw the transformation and called Cashman. “Whatever you are doing, please keep it up,” she implored him.

The Pause Principle is also crucial to creating cultures of innovation, Cashman asserts. He describes Mike Paxton, former CEO of Häagen-Dazs and currently CEO of Chamilia, a fast-growing jewelry company. Paxton is one of those talented leaders who reflexively foster a culture of innovation by pushing their people to find new and better ways to get things done.

In building Chamilia, Paxton paused to consider how to convey to the organization that continuous innovation was the key to global growth and success. “This is a fast-growing, successful company with highly energized teams with tremendous creative design success,” Paxton said. “I had to step back to think about how I could inspire them to push the envelope, set innovation as the goal not just in design but in all areas.” Paxton challenged his team to become the leader in innovation every year, and not just in design but in supply chain management and production. By pausing to create a culture of innovation, Paxton set his company on a dynamic path to success.

Following the long-held credo that business books must provide Monday morning takeaways, Cashman concludes each chapter with a set of exercises for readers to use to build the concept of pause into their workplaces and personal lives. Simple though the concept may be, the reality of embracing Cashman’s ideas faces intense resistance. But in the long run, there is no escaping the day of reckoning.

“Pause is an inherent, generative principle that is always there, always available to us,” Cashman concludes. “Either we consciously go to it, integrating it in our lives or it comes to rescue us. Think about the many times you’ve felt the tug of pause....your intuition telling you to take a break, or to take another approach...and how many times you’ve ignored it until finally you could ignore it no longer.”