And by that, I don’t mean there is nothing that is hard for a leader to do. Rather, I have observed (okay, and experienced) that consciously stepping back and doing nothing in a specific situation can be incredibly hard for many leaders. We are wired to make things happen, to strategize, to fix problems . . . but sometimes sitting back and letting a situation play itself out a bit can be the best strategy.
Consciously doing nothing is not the same as not making a decision — it is a deliberate decision, presumably with a rationale and expected outcome. It takes patience, and often times is not all that popular with people who look to you to “do something” when a challenge arises. Taking action is easier. Even if it’s the wrong action, at least people can see you’re trying to impact the situation. Apparent lack of action on the part of a leader may prompt people to a) wonder if you really understand the magnitude of a situation; b) think you’re indecisive; c) think you are “weak”; or d) all of the above and probably several other letters to boot!
Making a choice to do nothing takes confidence, rather thick skin, and the willingness to take a long view. That said, there are several situations where doing nothing may be the best course of action. For example, there may be times where individuals, either internal or external to your organization, try press you to address an issue that is actually not yours to solve. Tempting as it may be, especially if you have an opinion about the preferred course of action, this is a time to take a “not my circus, not my monkeys” perspective. I’m confident you have plenty of your own challenges to address. If someone tries to get you to take on theirs, be pleasant, be encouraging, but beyond that, do nothing.
There are also cases where there is an internal issue that presents a growth opportunity for one of your staff members. Perhaps you could solve the issue more quickly however, much like a parent choosing not to step in when their child experiences a conflict, doing nothing can lead to more self-reliant staff. Or maybe you choose to do nothing to, in effect, call someone’s bluff, or force action on the part of another party. Doing nothing should not be your most frequently used strategy (if it is, you might want to revisit whether you really are just indecisive!), but used sparingly it can be extremely impactful.
I also find that people confuse “apparent lack of action” with doing nothing. Often there is much a leader is doing behind the scenes to positively impact a situation without it being visible to others — much like a duck who appears to glide effortlessly across the water, but is actually paddling like crazy under the surface. This is more common, and from my perspective much easier, than actually not responding — because you know you’re doing something, even if others don’t.
Ironically, the simple fact that most of us aren’t wired to do nothing can actually increase the impact of this response. People take notice. They think about what they should do if you’re not going to do anything, which sometimes can lead to the best solution to a situation.
Tough call, but hey, no one said leadership would be easy!