We associate effective leadership (and followership) with action. The leader identifies and issue or opportunity and takes action. When we hire, there is evidence that someone perceived to be “agentive” (those who take action) is more likely to be considered than someone who is “socio-emotional” (or people oriented).
But sometimes taking action can have negative results. The other day I was chatting with one of my favourite history professors. She teaches a wonderful course on Elizabethan history. And Lizzie was an amazing leader. She led her country through war, poverty and the social upheaval of the reformation successfully. England became more prosperous and peaceful than ever in its history during her reign. It also built the foundations of what would become the British empire during her reign.
Poor old Lizzie was often accused of dithering, of being uncertain and unwilling to take action. This was attributed to her inherent weakness as a woman. But she was really playing for time and playing various competing courtiers against each other. She kept various groups competing against each other by taking no action. This meant that they could not collaborate to challenge her rule because they were too busy infighting. Often, these problems resolved themselves or went away completely as a result of her stalling tactics. If she had acted, there was greater risk and uncertainty than if she stalled.
Sometimes the best leadership action is taking no action. Our society feels profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of a leader taking no action. Every business case I’ve ever taught asks What should she/he do? Perhaps cases should ask What should he/she not do? Are there items on your to do list where taking action might be the wrong thing to do?