The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility

Stop What You’re Doing: The Value of Stepping Back

by Gael O'Brien

Leaders who are hyperactive -- doing more and more, faster and faster – in their response to an ever-changing, complex world are less likely to be innovative and are more vulnerable to making ethical mistakes, according to Kevin Cashman.

Why? Because “when we get hyperactive, we get self-focused and we move into coping,” says Cashman, who is a global thought leader on leadership development. Hyperactivity wears us, our team, and others out: “it puts us at character, ethical, and innovation points of compromise.”

I talked with Cashman recently about his new book, The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forwardand how it can connect the dots in ethical behavior. The distinction he makes between coping and character adds to our growing understanding of the behaviors that set in motion the conditions for corporate scandals, crises, and financial meltdowns.

“Many leaders’ characters would barely recognize their reputations if they met them on the street,” he writes in the book. “Character, in its highest state is the leader who serves; in its lowest state, it is the leader who self-serves.”

How does pause fit into this dynamic? Cashman describes the Pause Principle as “the conscious, intentional process of stepping back, within ourselves and outside of ourselves, to lead forward with greater authenticity, purpose and contribution.”

As authenticity is a much used word, I asked him to elaborate. “We are authentic to our current state of development,” he said, “but inauthentic to our potential state. It is that tension that keeps us growing in authenticity; not being complacent that we are there, because in all of life, if we ever think we are there, life will teach us that we are not.”

He makes the same case for not being complacent in one’s own ethical development. He explains that most people view character as either you have it (100 percent) or you don’t (zero); they put themselves in the 100 percent category, not wanting to admit any lack. The reality, he says, is that we are all going in and out of character all the time.

I asked Cashman about the juxtaposition in the book between character and coping. He indicated that we tend to go into coping when we are more in the survival mode: “we collapse into ourselves for protection, and sometimes we go into fear or mistrust, so we collapse “more into self service and self interest.”

Family patterns, histories, and cultural bases for ethical behavior are some of the factors that stimulate going into coping. The key, he says, is to have an awareness of “when do we go there, when are we vulnerable, and what are the triggers that put us into self interest.”  For some, the coping response is tweaked by relationships, for others it is more financial. In turn, he adds, we need to be aware of what the situations and conditions are when we are more in character and what our behaviors look like.

Being in coping and being in character create different physiological states; our bodies and our emotions react differently in each. “Physiology doesn’t know how to lie: it just reacts, it just expresses what is happening,” unlike the mind, he says, that will lie to us all the time. Our developing and deepening our self awareness moves us away from our intellect and sense of self image to allow us to see when we are about to go into coping and what we need to do not to head down that road.

I asked about the role of coping in financial crises. The core of the financial crisis is a character crisis, he said. “It is an ethical crisis because when you trace back most of these disasters, they go to the core of very competent people who are not thinking about others and are thinking about self;” While we can regulate, he says, “if people are in power with great competency and low character development, we are all at risk.”

The purpose of pause is to bring clarity to complexity and enable the leader to move from a hyperactive way of being, that relies heavily on coping, to transformative leadership which is about character. I asked Cashman how the Pause Principle addresses ethical breakdowns.

He indicated that breakdowns occur when we are not attending to three things:

  • Not pausing enough for self awareness to see if we are in self-interest versus the broader interests of constituencies we serve;
  • Not pausing enough in high complexity situations when we are likely to make mistakes, miss something, or make poor decisions; and
  • Not pausing enough in high importance situations where decisions are far reaching, or very strategic, or have a lot of downside potential.

In addition to the lens of character and coping, Cashman’s book includes 20 “pause points” with questions to reflect on one’s leadership in many areas, as well as offering seven pause practices.

In an ever-complex global arena, with constant pressure on short-term results, the power of pause, especially when we consciously direct it to our leadership and what we say we stand for, can offer the best of all possible risk mitigation strategies.

Gael O’Brien is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics

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