It struck me while watching the Olympics how much this event is a huge event expression of the importance of time. There are four years between the Games, Phelps wins Gold by 100ths of a second, athletes train 14 hours a day—for years… It’s all about time.
It made me think about Evolutionary leaders, who think, plan and act with a distant future in mind.
Time and leadership are bound together.
Being a great leader means mastering all of the dimensions of communication, and time is a major element in every culture’s communication practice. For a good listing of these dimensions check out Edward Hall’s discussion of primary message systems in his book The Silent Language. But if you don’t have time for that, just read this blog post. It will be a lot faster.
In this digital-24/7-non-stop world, time turns out to be a very big deal.
Time is influenced by many things. Right now, I am teaching an intensive course in Leadership Communication for the Ole Miss MBA Program. That’s right, Mississippi in August. Yeah, it is hot; sometimes crazy hot.
Professor Hudson Hoagland at Clark Universitydiscovered that people perceive time speeds up when their body temperature increases. When you think about it—it makes sense. When you are in a stuffy seminar room and the temperature is too high—your body clock seems to be moving at twice the rate of the interminable clock on the wall. “Will this meeting never end?!” Hoagland also discovered that when one enjoys one or two drinks—time will seem to speed up—and then it will slow down shortly after you say “Well, OK, just one more…” (I believe time can stop altogether during a hangover. )
Time is a function of perception—and culture.
Americans have long been obsessed with time. But take a trip to Europe or South America or the Pacific Islands and you will see very different cultural interpretations of time. We talk about a “New York minute,” which is very different from a “Mississippi Minute” (Thank you Steve Azar) or “Hawaiian Time” (Thank you Brother Iz).
For leaders it is critical that we match up our sense of time with the people we are seeking to influence. The more precisely you can manage and communicate about time (and timing) the more you will be perceived as credible, trusted, and powerful. Unfortunately most of us use our discussions of time in the hopes that we will not be pinned down.
For example, if a client asks me to “check with them later…” or to call them “in a while”—what does that mean? You hear this kind of maddening fuzzy-talk all the time (pun intended). You hear, “I need that soon!” “We will move on it ASAP!” “Let me get back to you on that.” And so on…
Here are some ways to get in sync with time and be a stronger leader:
- Time and space are wound up together. Walk down the halls in a high tech office space and you can see a culture that values periods of high intensity concentration—this is no place to chit chat! This is a place to get stuff done! On the other hand, walk through a university union and you will see that the space itself is designed to slow things down, encourage reflection, and idle pontificating. Look at the physical space that your client’s inhabit and you will learn much about the way they value time. The Japanese call this perception of space and time “Ma” and it pervades their view of the world. Great sales people are tuned into “Ma.”
- Time is power. The people who can move through the day on their own volition have more power than those who work in time with a clock. If you want to start messing with the power continuum, start messing with people’s schedules. There are those that follow schedules and those that make them. People tend to get addicted to this perk of power. So, simply asserting a time to meet a client may hit his/her subconscious as an insult or a “one-up” power ploy.
- Time is associated with risk. The faster things go, the riskier they are. As one who has entertained large throngs of skiers with my spectacular wipe-outs, I can support the relationship between speed and risk. I think it was my wife who kept goading me—“It is easier if you go faster!” Yes, it was easier for me to distribute all of my ski gear randomly over the mountainside. For many professions, time is a buffer for risk. The slower we move the less risk we experience. This is especially true in financial services. Bankers need time to manage risk. They need four hundred points on the curve over time to gain confidence. But if you have talked with a banker lately, they are experiencing compression in time as strongly as they are experiencing compression in their interest rate spread.
- Time is cyclical. Seasons, it is all about seasons. Travel, car purchases, liposuction—all highly seasonal businesses. Think about the difference between August and September; chances are you have very different expectations about those months and the level of productivity expected.
- Young people don’t get time. They see the world as being comprised of two groups; young people and old people. It is only us old people who see the subtle distinctions between a 27 year old bachelor, a 31 year old newlywed, and a 35 year old new father. To the young person—they are all just old.
- Old people want you to work with them on their time. This is one of the few perks of getting older, cooperate and everyone will be happier.
- Time isn’t money. You can make more money.
Now if you have completed this entire article, you have just sunk a couple of minutes of investment into the process. Was it worth it? Your clients are gauging your interactions with that kind of moment to moment ROI all the time—pun intended. The trick is to not assume that your sense of time is their sense of time, adapt and gain power.