Indeed, most of us picture a good leader as someone who is able to review and understand a complex situation, to take thoughtful decisions at the suitable moment, and to react to unforeseen changes with timeliness. And when we meet aspiring young leaders, we tend to advise them to propose objectives, to evaluate lucidly their achievements, and to respond to a challenging situation thoughtfully, but only when the time is ripe for it.

            What does it mean acting at the right time? How can future leaders develop and refine the desirable sense of timing?

            The sense of timing plays a central role in many familiar activities that require the execution of an action at the appropriate moment. Ball players have to make the pass when their moving teammates have succeeded in eluding the players covering them. Actors have to feel the temporal flow of the play; entering the stage and speaking their lines too early or too late can spoil the performance. A man who desires to be acquainted with a woman more intimately has to be mindful of the appropriate moment for proposing a dinner together. 

            Similarly, leaders who want to do well in their respective area of expertise must be in possession of a refined sense of timing. They have to know when to introduce transformations into their organizations, when to invest in a new product or a new program, when to follow a new economic or social trend, when to stand firm against the naysayers, when to opt for negotiations to resolve a crisis, when to end consultations and to act decisively, when to follow a spontaneous impulse and when it is advisable to silence an impulse and to listen to the voice of reason, when to yield to an external pressure and when to maintain their convictions.

            All these examples refer to the time that we experience while accomplishing an action and not to the objective time that we represent and calculate in minutes, hours, or days. The time of our actions is made up of approaching possibilities, of the factual realization of some possibilities, and of already realized and discarded possibilities. The possibilities do not emerge with the same regularity as the chronological succession of instants. Their appearance and the need of their actualization depend on the ongoing modification of a specific social, economic, cultural or political environment and the importance we attach to them at a certain stage of our professional life. When, for instance, the CEO of an aerospace manufacturer faces the demand to be environmentally more responsible, the possibility of designing aircraft engines with better fuel consumption and much lower noise emission surges with an acute urgency. 

Over-active leaders, cherishing efficiency and rapidity, preoccupied with immediate tangible results, are eager to seize possibilities and act promptly. Others, mindful of the right time to make a decision, prefer to lead with a different attitude. The patient and reflective attitude consists of not heedlessly conforming one’s action to the suggestions or dictates of a situation, of delaying a decision, of thinking through all its implications and consequences, and of waiting for the favourable moment. Not acting for a while is, in reality, an active and alert behaviour. The explicit obligation of postponing an action is an implicit obligation of attentively waiting until the moment is ripe for intervening.

The experiences of successful leaders prove that, unless one encounters an emergency and is faced with the ineluctable obligation to act promptly, numerous contentious issues (particular “branding” of the organization) and business challenges (loss of revenue) call for the adoption of an attitude of unflappable waiting, which is not troubled by the passing of time and which remains unworried by the expected but still unknown moment of an action. This imperturbable attitude rebuffs the relentless, hasty intervention in the affairs at hand and the unnecessary risk of making a mistake. It favours alert availability and constant adaptation and withstands the pressure of the approaching future with it seeming demand for immediate actions. It does not mean that leaders are utterly confused or refuse to consider urgent demands, or play for safety. It means rather that, for a while, they prefer practising what Aldous Huxley called “the fine art of doing nothing.”

Among the successively approaching possibilities, some fade away quickly or others remain present for a much longer spell.

Proficient leaders recognize their importance not by sheer conformity or by pure opportunism or by following abstract principles, but in light of a serious reflection both on the soft (temporary) and hard (enduring) trends that an organization is facing and the consequences of various possible action. The art of leadership consists of calmly discerning which trend calls for action and when to act.

We now see that one of the chief tasks of young leaders is the learning how to ride on the “waves of time.” In a persuasive article on the practice of morality in politics, the former president of Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel tells us that, in this matter, learning occurs outside the educational settings. During the years spent in in “high politics,” he discovered that the proper instinct was more useful than a post-graduate degree in political science. Indeed, we learn to conduct a delicate diplomatic or business negotiation the same way as we learn to swim or to ski: our words and actions are a more or less successful adaptation to the requirements of a situation. We gradually learn when we need to advance an argument, when we ought to seek out a compromise, when to hold on to our initial position, when to broach sensitive issues with warm humour or when to communicate tersely dry facts. As we are involved in more discussions, we gain more experience and we know what to do and when to do it. As a highly successful Canadian aerospace business leader John Saabas put it, “We gradually learn to make informed decisions and to take a bet at the right time on how to delight future customers. This fruitful combination is indeed the hallmark of a good leader.”