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Henley Leadership Group Blog

The Art Of Working Fast And Slow


Successful leaders know how - and more importantly when - to go slow to move fast. Here's how.

If you are a leader, you have a lot to get done. Your days are long and the work doesn’t let up. Most of the time, there simply aren’t enough hours in a day. So, you stretch the hours by working long days and then on a Saturday morning, or a Sunday evening, just to catch up and keep up. You know the drill. Moving fast is the way of it. 

But people require presence. Whether you are in a room with your team or in a virtual room on Zoom or Teams, you must be able to slow down and drop in. This requires a kind of muscle that I think of as going slow to go fast. If you aren’t present, people know it. Lack of presence communicates that you have more important things to pay attention to, that you are too busy, that people don’t matter. Undoubtedly, this is not what you want to communicate. 

Leadership requires both — moving fast and slow. Knowing which one to engage — and when — is the art. Having the choice to speed up and slow down is the skill. 

Fortunately, we have neuroscience on our side. We know more about the human brain today than ever before thanks to advanced technology. And with smartwatches and other devices, we now have handy ways of measuring our brainwave activity, as well as our heart rate. Once we understand more about brainwave frequencies and their correlation to moving fast and slow, we can be more at choice in our days. You can actually intentionally increase or decrease the speed of your brain and heart. 

Fast and Slow Frequencies

The human brain operates on brainwaves like electrical currents. For the purposes of this article, I will address only two of the frequencies we engage with at work — Beta and Alpha. 

The fastest and first is the Beta brainwave, which is emitted when you are consciously alert as well as when you feel nervous or tense. Beta brainwave frequencies range from 13 to 60 pulses per second in the Hertz scale. High beta is the frequency you are in when you are moving fast, ingesting lots of caffeine and have a ton to get done. Most of the leaders we work with find themselves in Beta brainwave most of the time. 

Neuroscientists are also discovering that brainwaves are contagious. If a team is in the room with a leader who is “buzzing” at this fast brainwave frequency, in just a few minutes their ECGs might show the same brainwave frequency. In other words, your fast brainwave frequency could “speed up” a whole room full of people!

When you are moving fast, you are in Beta. Your heart-rate is often up and you feel a sense of urgency, at times bordering on panic. This can be a necessary state for busy leaders, but understand that it activates the hormones of stress, so be intentional when you are in it and know when and how to leave it. 

The second brainwave, Alpha, is accessed when you are in a state of physical and mental ease. It’s slower, with frequencies ranging from 7 to 13 pulses per second. Alpha is accessed when you engage in routine tasks, such as showering, having an easy conversation, using the washroom or going for a walk. 

When your mind moves more slowly, you can learn new information, perform challenging tasks and analyze complex situations, bringing new ideas and intuitions to bear. This is why you often have an “aha!” moment only after you get up to take a break from an intense conversation. 

You can access Alpha brainwaves intentionally by taking slow breaths in your nose and out of your mouth. Slowing the mind from Beta to Alpha frequency produces significant increases in levels of beta-endorphin, norepinephrine and dopamine, which are linked to feelings of increased mental clarity and intuition. It also allows you to have a better sense of humor and be more easygoing. And certainly, you become more present. 

A 5-Minute Practice to Slow Down

When I work with executives, I encourage them to intentionally learn to drop into Alpha brainwave frequency. For just five minutes, they are to focus on their breathing, in through the nose and out of the mouth. Whenever the mind wanders, they bring it back to the breath. In this way, a leader is training her mind to access Alpha frequency when commanded to do so. This will come in handy when she is in an important meeting and needs the full attention of her mind on the conversation in front of her. 

Just like consistent exercise makes you more fit, so will five minutes of practicing slowing down. It takes discipline and a commitment to the great benefits that Alpha brainwaves make available.

Previously published on Forbes