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Step Back to Lead Forward

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Step Back to Lead Forward

by Kevin Cashman


When I signed books at BookExpo America several years ago, I was one of 32 authors who stepped out from behind a velvet curtain onto an elevated podium every half-hour or so. Attendees lined up in long rows and patiently waited to receive their signed copies. While the process had a bit too much formality for my taste, it was still a big deal for me.

Lining up behind the curtain with the other 31 authors, I had noticed that to my right was George Stephanopoulos, chief political correspondent for ABC News, formerly White House communications director and senior advisor for policy and strategy during President Bill Clinton’s administration. Although he looked like a teenager, he was unfazed by the event—cool, calm, and collected, a complete contrast to my visible enthusiasm.

When we took our spots, George’s line was long. It went on forever, wrapping around the corner beyond our sight. My line of people numbered a paltry seven. At first, I cycled through reactive embarrassment, insecurity, and disbelief. I thought, “Am I in the correct spot?” Then, I paused. Stepping back for a moment, I caught myself and reflected: “How do I best deal with this situation?”

This short moment of reflection gave me renewed clarity and purpose. “This isn’t about me. It’s about those seven people, and I will graciously, generously give them my full attention.” Once I made that shift, I had a great time.

By connecting deeply, I learned a little about each individual; then I signed each book. It became a wonderful experience.

After a little while, I looked up. A small miracle had happened. I now had a long line of people awaiting my signature. I glanced over at George. His line had emptied. Apparently his books had not arrived, and he had been dashing off his signature on photos of himself as substitutes without taking much time to talk with people. Evidently, word had gotten out: “You want a photo, or a personally signed book from Cashman?”

Even George noticed the shift and said, “You must have a great book.” I responded, “Sure is. You want a copy?” Feigning importance, I signed one for him. The truth is I felt bad for him. I wouldn’t have been very happy if my books hadn’t shown up, and clearly his disappointing circumstances helped turn the tide for me and created my surprising book wave.

Reflecting on this example and the thousands of other intentional pauses I have had the privilege to witness with clients over the years, it has become clear: Pause powers performance.


A Universal Principle: Pause

How often do we miss these small but significant moments? These key opportunities can unlock our hearts and minds, open us up, and connect us more deeply with others so that we can create something new and different.

All too often, we allow ourselves to be carried away by our busyness. We are too hyperactive, too reactive to even notice the hidden value-creating dynamics waiting just under the surface within us and around us.

Tethered to our smartphones, we are too caught up and distracted to take the time necessary to sort through complexity or to locate submerged purpose. In our urgent rush to get “there,” we are going everywhere but being nowhere. Far too busy managing with transactive speed, we rarely step back to lead with transformative significance.

Pause is a universal principle inherent in living, creative systems. It is part of the order, value, and growth that arise from slowing down and stepping back. In physics, it is the Second Law of Thermodynamics: As activity lessens, order increases. The Pause Principle is present in economies, physiologies, ecologies, communities, organizations, and nations. We observe pause on the macro and the micro levels as a principle of life and leadership, a natural part of the continuum that catalyzes growth, innovation, and transformation.

As with any valuable resource not yet recognized and therefore neglected, we have to explore and discover its pragmatic uses to experience its value-creating impact. Additionally, we need to learn to tap into pause, incorporating it in our lives and leadership, and leveraging it as a powerful resource, an innovation in and of itself.

The Pause Principle derives from several years of research, including interviews with more than 100 people, as well as from various forms of practice and from observing effects.

It entails the conscious, intentional process of stepping back, within ourselves and outside of ourselves, to lead forward with greater authenticity, purpose, and contribution. This methodology allows more examination, higher-order logic, rational analysis, more profound questioning, deeper listening, higher-quality presence, broader perspective, greater openness to diverse thinking and input, and ultimately more impactful, influential, and innovative action.

Of the 100-plus leaders we interviewed, nearly every one told us, There is so much coming at us at once, we need to pause to figure out what is important and what is not. Pause Points, whether structured or spontaneous, can help us do that. They are tools to help us regain our balance, feel grounded and centered. They can help us be accountable to our commitments, to our mission, and to people. Pause Points can help us intentionally imbue generativity, innovation, and a sense of meaningful service in our cultures.


The Pause Practices

From our interviews and our analyses of a multitude of research and case studies, we have isolated Seven Pause Practices that support the meta-pause principle: Step back to lead forward. The practices are the pragmatic ways to breathe life into each growth area: grow self, grow others, grow cultures of innovation.


Pause Practice 1: Be On-Purpose

“Leaders remind people what is important,” in the words of Warren Bennis, the leadership studies pioneer. Meaning inspires us to go beyond what is, to contribute something extraordinary. Purpose is the intersection of competency and contribution that aspires to achieve something bigger, something beyond us. Purpose gives context, drive, and meaning to personal growth, talent growth, and growth of innovation. It may be the most important, most far-reaching, transformative pause of all.


Pause Practice 2: Question and Listen

Questions are the probing language of pause, forcing us to step back, reframe, revision, and reconsider. Questions are the learning links that, over time, connect knowing to wisdom. Questions are the spades of curiosity that allow us to dig deeper foundations for personal, relational, and creative growth.

Listening is the receptive language of pause. Listening with authenticity opens up doorways to self-knowledge, understanding others, and innovative possibilities; it introduces us to new ways of thinking, behaving, and seeing the world. Listening is the incubator for growing clarity out of complexity; it is the silent, pause-ful soul of transformative learning.


Pause Practice 3: Risk Experimentation

Managers minimize risk and experimentation to increase predictability; leaders monitor risk and accelerate experimentation to foster breakthrough. Stepping back to attempt the new and the different establishes the pathway to learning and discovery. If we hold on to the status quo and the tried-and-true, we are left with efficiency as our main source of value creation.

However, when we experiment, we have a chance to foster entirely new ways to create value. Experimentation requires boldness and the courage to face failure and to leverage its potent learning. It challenges how we see ourselves and our world; it is the very essence of discovery. Risking experimentation is pausing at the edgy, uncomfortable intersection of current reality and future reality; leaders create the future through intelligent experimentation.


Pause Practice 4: Reflect and Synthesize

Managers analyze, judge, and decide to manage current realities; leaders reflect and synthesize to create new realities. As leaders, we tend to overanalyze, underreflect, and undersynthesize.

Addicted to speed and action, we become transactive deciders instead of transformative synthesizers. Great leaders take the time to incubate analysis to discover higher-order, more strategic, forward-thinking solutions. Reflective synthesis is equally important for leaders to develop self-awareness, talent awareness, and innovation breakthroughs. Reflection and synthesis hold the keys to unlock the doors of authenticity, transformation, and innovation.


Pause Practice 5: Consider Inside-Out and Outside-In Dynamics

Good leaders look outside themselves for strategic solutions; great leaders look inside themselves and outside themselves for enduring transformation.

Pause is a holistic, integrated process of considering dynamic forces within us and outside of us. The more we pause to consider both endogenic and exogenic forces, the more potential personal insight, talent insight, and strategic insight available. Pausing to more deeply consider internal and external information creates a greater likelihood of profound personal, strategic, interpersonal, and organization growth. Balancing our pause practices “to look inside” and “to look outside” is the pause-through needed for authentic, enduring breakthrough.


Pause Practice 6: Foster Generativity

A generative leader pauses to prepare the next generation more often than for personal success. Generativity is the energy and enthusiasm we get by helping people surpass us. It is the joy of giving, coaching, mentoring, and stretching people to go beyond us. Generativity is the joy of parents seeing their children elevating themselves; it is the joy of leaders multiplying their impact for future generations. Generative pause fosters a rich atmosphere for human potential to flourish.


Pause Practice 7: Be Authentic

There is no greater influential act than a leader authentically being the change the leader wishes to see in an organization. Once leaders become what they want others to aspire to, the attractive force is irresistible, and people rush in to engage and to contribute.

Pausing to be more authentic with ourselves, with our people, and with what we aspire to create is critical to enduring value creation. Authenticity gives substance, realness, and value to everything it touches. Managers build dependability through accuracy; leaders build credibility through authenticity.




Kevin Cashman, regarded as one of the world’s premier CEO coaches, was named one of the Top 10 Thought Leaders by Leadership Excellence magazine several times. For more than 30 years, he has advised senior executives and senior teams in more than 60 countries. His six leadership books include Leadership from the Inside Out, currently used in more than 100 universities and leadership programs worldwide. This article is excerpted from his new book, The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forward, from Berrett-Koehler Publishers. To learn more: bkconnection.com.

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