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When to talk and when to act

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“Intellectual tasting of life will not supersede muscular activity. If a man should consider the nicety of the passage of a piece of bread down his throat, he would starve.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience,” “Essays: Second Series”

Most of us do not receive the luxury of endless contemplation. Most humans through history have not been afforded this. This is a shame, in many ways, but it’s a reminder today, when we have easy access to distractions, endless data we can collect and many incentives to be risk-averse, that even the leading intellectual of his day knew when the time to think was over and the time to act had arrived.

This applies to leaders, of course. Set your goals, and let’s get moving. Decide on whether this employee should be hired (or fired), and do so. Want to change the culture? The easiest way is to actually change the culture.

This applies to how leaders help their people. If you don’t set goals or expectations, don’t expect anything but some combination of listlessness, disillusionment and paralysis. If you don’t train people correctly (and fully, and in an ongoing manner), if you don’t acknowledge success, if you don’t work to correct failure and dismiss saboteurs, how can you be upset at the results? Your fate, and that of your team or organization, will have been the result of inactions, of fear, as much as the result of mistaken or ill-executed actions.

This, further, applies to all employees, especially those fortunate enough to enjoy some leeway, some discretion. Don’t like something? Do something about it — either fix it, help diagnose the problem and possible solutions, or find someone who can. Instead, we sometimes find it easier, safer, less tiring to complain or to throw up our hands. We’re all guilty of it — there’s no shame in recognizing that.

But what about process!? What about communicating and gathering insights, and solving the problem the first time, correctly? Of course, of course. Every problem, every situation has antecedents, similar stories and principles to draw upon, but also unique components. Talking, thinking, study, research, analysis and presentation help work through all that.

Moving a couple of centuries ahead from Emerson, Dan Rockwell of the Leadership Freak blog has written about the problem of problems extensively. From last year:

Talking about problems without taking action always leads to discouragement.

When inaction prevails, helplessness sets in.

Do something, any reasonable action will do.

So, what’s my point? Am I complaining about complaining? Complaining about people not tackling problems head-on and not offering my own solution? Are there problems I’m not confronting in my own life and work (everyone I know nods here)?

Yes, to all of the above. So, two steps I’ll propose. Both are relatively easy and direct:

  1. Pick something you’ve been avoiding in your life — work or otherwise. Fix it today. At least, find possible solutions and start trying one out.
  2. Help someone else solve a problem. Maybe it’s a problem they’ve brought to you; maybe it’s one affecting the whole team or organization. Show you believe in their combination of insights turned into actions.

I’ll try this, and I hope some of you will, too. E-mail me if you find success. E-mail me, too, if you think I wasted a lot of words.

James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and manages SmartBlog on Leadership. He edits SmartBrief’s newsletters on leadership and entrepreneurship, among others. You can find him on Twitter discussing leadership and management issues @SBLeaders.