The pace of business keeps hastening, as advanced technology hypercharges the speed at which data and business opportunities emerge, in addition to increasing the amount and accessibility of those things. Fundamental shifts in market structure have shortened the life cycles of innovation, products, and even executives. CEO tenure in the Fortune 500 has fallen from an average of 11 years in 2002 to six years today. The average lifespan of a company in the Fortune 500 has shrunk from 25 years in 1980 to just 15 today. The end result is a pervasive sense of anxiety and time famine, as both companies and the executives within them struggle to keep up.
But speed and urgency, although necessary attributes of leadership, are not sufficient. In fact, our research suggests that the leaders who can tether an obsession with deadlines and time to an ability to sense the work and energy flow of their colleagues will have the most success.
Even in the 21st-century fast-track economy, the idea that each minute (or billable hour) of human activity has a constant value is at odds with the basic facts. Humans don’t experience time with linear consistency. All of us feel an ebb and flow of cognitive alertness and physical energy throughout a day. In the absence of a clock or watch, what feels like a minute or an hour to a person can vary considerably, depending, for example, on how interesting the task at hand is, whether distractions are available, or even what the physical conditions surrounding the person are (e.g., time passes more slowly when a person is freezing cold or experiencing loud noises in the background). As Einstein is quoted as saying, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”
Cultural anthropologists were the first to recognize that people tend to track time in two ways: clock time and social time. Edward T. Hall’s famous 1983 book, The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time (Anchor Press/Doubleday), first brought this distinction to light cross-culturally. Underclock time, punctuality and predictability are highly valued. Meetings start and end when people say they will. People adhere strictly to deadlines and appointment times. Under social time, by contrast, conversational and relational smoothness and the ability to complete a thought or interaction without abruptness are valued. A fluid sense of natural rhythm in conversations and interactions over time enhances relationship-building.
The research found that, traditionally, southern European and Latin cultures placed more emphasis on social time and Anglo-Saxon cultures placed more emphasis on clock time. But these cultural differences are beginning to wane as more of the world moves to a global business culture driven by clock time. Still, within the same culture, research has long found significant differences in how people experience time.
The Importance of Flow
The Synchronous Leader
People who score high on both synchrony preference and time urgency tend to be better liked, and their contributions are more valued in team settings. They are also more likely to hold leadership positions within their teams. Further, controlling for national culture, we found that executives with high synchrony scores tend to view and experience themselves as interdependent with others, rather than independent, and are more open to new information and experiences and more amenable to multitasking.
These findings show that although effective leaders must be able to keep their teams on schedule and manage time effectively in order to meet deadlines (something at which time-urgent individuals excel), they also need to facilitate interpersonal interactions within these schedules to help employees function as a team (something at which individuals high on synchrony preference excel).
On the basis of our findings, we have developed a framework for teaching executives about the importance of temporal perception in management (see exhibit). We’ve identified four temporal leadership types, depicting the degree to which a leader is high or low on both the preference for timeliness (the time urgency measure) and the preference for social synchrony. It also describes how important adhering to self-pacing versus group pacing is considered by different types of leaders.
We find that the most successful leaders fall into the upper right quadrant (temporally agile leaders). Most striking, perhaps, our research suggests that a high score on timeliness is no longer enough to get to the C-suite. In fact, those who score high on timeliness but low on synchrony will find themselves limited in both roles and advancement in our high-speed culture. Those who are able to combine timeliness and synchrony are more likely to affiliate with others and to help them effectively, and less likely to show dominance, autonomy, and impulsivity. They can exhibit give and take. And when a team is under stress, these leaders can pull back to allow team members the kind of breathing room that will lead to long-term resilience.
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