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How leaders can stay grounded in the present

Reflecting on the here and now and breaking down goals into manageable parts help.

5 min read


How leaders can stay grounded in the present

Jess Bailey/Unsplash

Over the course of the last 15 months, we have spent a lot of time gazing back or looking forward, hoping to be anywhere but the present time.

It was certainly for good reason. Any leader in any profession appreciates being able to guide people, processes and products with at least a little predictability. As we’ve experienced throughout the pandemic, leaders in all roles couldn’t rely on their instincts as much as they would have liked to and couldn’t look to the past or count on the future.

As we move toward deepening our understanding of what has transpired and toward a healthier and safer population overall, we need to force ourselves to refocus on the present. The past doesn’t make a ton of sense since much in the world is now different, and the future is tough to predict since we haven’t charted this course before. That leaves us leading for today, and that isn’t a bad thing.

Leading for the present requires us to reframe our work so that it is focused on the here and now and so the actions we take can have a discernable difference on what happens next (while recognizing that everyone has a story of what came before). Several strategies can help you lead for the present. Here are three I like to use:

Take 10 

Giving ourselves a few minutes to think each day is the key to staying grounded and remaining fresh. It sounds obvious, but if we aren’t able to take time to observe the world around us, then it can be very easy to forget where we are, why we are doing what we are doing and what the outcomes of our work might be. Give yourself a solid 10 minutes with nothing to do but think. Don’t allow for agenda items, chats or other interruptions. Just sit (or stand or walk or whatever works) and think. That’s it. 

Let the mind wander with no set pathway — don’t force thoughts into the past or future — so you can simply consider where you are at the current time. Allow yourself to be present.

Set small goals

While we tend to like to aim for the flashy, big-budget goals that we can hang our hat (and legacy) on, all leaders recognize that those goals are rarely attainable quickly and require lots of thinking down the line. Setting smaller, more easily attainable goals not only allows for continued benchmarking of success, but it also helps us stay focused on what people need today. Determining the small goals — those measured in a short enough timeline for the work we do and the data we collect to still be meaningful — helps ensure we are paying attention to our current culture and the needs of our current community. 

Setting small goals isn’t particularly difficult. Because they’re reached in the period of days, weeks or a month or two, small goals are usually less complex and easier to reflect on. Some examples of small goals are starting a collegial meeting group of local leaders, collaborating with staff and students on a welcome-back-to-school luncheon, and setting up an effective calendar and meeting process. The more of these we have, the more likely we are to keep a focus on what is happening in the present.

Appoint a “friction finder”

Friction, in our normal life experience, slows things down. It could be gravel on a roadway, treads on sneakers or, in this case, someone who forces us to stop and think. Sometimes leaders want to avoid friction because it tends to make checking off the boxes harder and more time-consuming. Appointing a “friction finder” takes this off your shoulders. You will be in the driver’s seat, but the “friction finder” will be looking out the window to note potential obstacles you’ll encounter, raise questions and offer better, more timely solutions.

This person will need to be open and honest about all things, and you and the employee should expect some difficult conversations. Ultimately, the “friction finder” forces a leader to keep a foot near the brakes — not because it always makes sense to go slow, but because you can’t always see what’s coming when you are homing in on the present. Putting that responsibility on another person’s shoulders can minimize leaders’ frustration and help with a focus on today’s issues.

Try some of these strategies now. While the past and future are both important, we can only understand why we are where we are, and where we may choose to be, if we stay grounded in today.

Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.


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