Leading, Fast and Slow


One of the least spoken about features of leadership is pace. Some leaders engage at a fast pace, others prefer a slower pace. The truth is that when you are working by yourself on most projects pace introduces limited intrusions into your ability to perform. This is not true when working with others. Most of us have experienced the frustration with others that could not keep up, or could not slow down, to accommodate our preferred speed. Our biggest issue with pace is that we do not receive adequate feedback from others. It seems that there is a ‘value’ assumption added to pace which dictate that ‘fast’ is best and ‘slow’ is remedial. This means that the people you lead with are unlikely to tell you if you lead too quickly (it reflects poorly on them in their minds) or if you lead too slowly (as it reflects poorly on you in their minds).

As an example, I have coached multiple people who worked with the same leader on more than one occasion. Some of them experienced high levels of stress as a result of the leader’s pace but were not comfortable sharing that with the leader as they believed it would be seen as criticism stemming from their own weakness. A different person actually enjoyed the leader’s pace and were energised by the speed demonstrated. I have experienced the same phenomena in reverse as well. We would be better leaders if we left the value judgements behind, and had honest conversations about the differences, positive and negative, that pace can bring to any given situation.

It is worth considering why others might find our leadership pace fast or slow.

1.       Executing quickly. Some of us are wired to simply do things quickly. Once an idea occurs to us, or a need becomes obvious, we move rapidly into action mode and get things down. Such leaders have similar expectation of others around them.  In their mind their subordinates should be able to spot things to do and simply get on with the job, with little support and even less guidance. In Primal Leadership[i] this style of leadership is named ‘The Pace-Setting Leader’. The authors point out the gaps in emotional intelligence that this leadership style exposes, particularly in the realm of self-management.

2.       Thinking quickly. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman[ii] ably expands what organisational experts have know for many years. We all have the capacity to either draw on the slower thinking (logical) part of our brain or the faster (intuitive) side of our brain. Leaders who rely solely on fast, intuitive thinking have great advantage in many circumstances. Kahneman notes that this is particularly in situations which are consistent, and for which one is able to practise. In other circumstances slow thinking is required to achieve optimal results.

3.       Deciding quickly. It seems obviously related to the first two categories is the ability to decide quickly. However, it is true that sometimes fast thinking produces fast decisions, in other cases, a leader’s ability to survey multiple options quickly leaves them paralysed about making a decision. In his study on group decision making Paul Nutt[iii] observes that there is a type of leader, often the organisational founder, that produces a ‘rush to judgement’ decision process for the organisation. In these cases, as soon as an adequate option occurs to the key leader, he or she drives the organisation straight to implementation without considering other options or processes, normally with sub-optimal results. In most cases a slower process will help others to come along the decision journey with us.


If you are a fast-paced leader you might identify with one of the categories above, or all of them or a combination of them. Have you ever stopped to consider what pace you lead with, fast or slow? Have you considered what that might be doing to those around you? Considering your own leadership pace should be a healthy process where you analyse both the positives and negatives that your speed and style brings to any given situation. If we leave behind the value judgment of whether speed is (universally) good or bad and embrace the concept that we are going to be better suited to some situations than others, our leadership will be more highly valued, and we will be far less likely to damage the people around us.

How do we begin to grow our awareness and to master our use of pace in leadership?

The challenge of mastering leadership is a skill like any other … anyone who has the will and motivation can get better at leading, once he [or she] understands the steps.[iv]

For some of us those steps are learned from reading books, for others by listening to experts, and for many through leadership relationships and experience. In my estimation, most people learn fastest in a coaching relationship which centres on honest feedback or a team where these things are discussed robustly.


Steve provides coaching and support for leaders of all speeds. See what others say about his contribution. https://www.deepwellleadership.com.au/testimonials/

[i] Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2013). Primal Leadership. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Review Press.

[ii] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farra, Straus and Giroux.

[iii] Nutt, P. (1984). Types of Organisational Decision Process. Administrative Science Quarterly, 29, 414-450.

[iv] (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2013) p.101

Steve Ingram