By Patrick Lencioni

The Power of Pondering

August 1, 2008
Column: Management that Makes a Difference

As is so often the case, the most important and powerful aspects of life are the simplest. And often we overlook the simple in the pursuit of the complex and the novel. Such is certainly the case when it comes to the power of quiet, focused contemplation—or pondering.

Someone once told me about an executive for the San Francisco Giants, a general manager named Brian Sabean. An employee for the Giants explained to me that if you walked by Sabean’s office, you could often see him sitting at his bare desk just staring at the wall in front of him. Known as one of the more creative and shrewd executives in baseball, Sabean spent much of his time in deep, undistracted thought. And while his peers and employees thought it was an odd practice at first, they came to understand that it was one of the keys to his success.

As leaders, we need pondering time to reflect on our organizations, our employees, our competitors and the market dynamics we face as well as our own effectiveness leading and managing.

Now, few executives will argue the importance of pondering. But most of them will admit that they don’t do much of it outside of an occasional shower or time alone in the bathroom. Why?

A lot of this has to do with adrenaline addiction, the compulsion we feel to be constantly in motion, busy and productive. The thought of setting aside meaningful time doing something that is not immediately or tangibly beneficial—in fact, that looks like we’re doing nothing at all—is difficult for busy executives to handle.

Another reason pondering is difficult has to do with our society and the media. We are constantly encouraged, even implored, to stay connected at all times. From wireless internet access and cell phones to little television monitors in the back of taxis and on elevators, we are never really allowed to be alone, and we are somehow led to believe that being alone is lonely.

A final reason why pondering isn’t utilized as often as it ought to be has to do with our fear of taking stock. Often, we unconsciously convince ourselves that if we stay busy we can avoid facing the problems in our organizations, and in our lives. I’m convinced that this accounts for a large portion of the adrenaline addiction.

So what are we to do?

First, admit that we are under-pondering, and that our failure to do so is causing our organizations to under-perform, even suffer. Second, tell the people around you that you need to ponder more. That’s right. They may look at you funny, but you’ll need them to help you cancel marginally productive meetings and protect you from distractions that seem urgent but aren’t really that important. Because if you don’t build time into your schedule for pondering—at home and at work—you’ll never make it part of your life.

Oddly enough, deep down inside we crave quiet and peace and solitude. But with our over-booked, over-scheduled lives, we rarely get it. And when we do, we tend to seek out recreation and rest. I must admit that I’ve played spider solitaire on an airplane, which is actually an ideal time for pondering.

Ironically, one of the areas of my life that I do make a priority of pondering is in my role as youth soccer coach. As silly as it sounds, I take time during my commute to turn off the radio or during a flight to sit and think about what is going on with my team and what I need to do to motivate them to play better.

Now, I realize that it might seem strange for a grown man with a large family and a busy career to use any of his scarce and precious time contemplating the merits of using three versus four defenders in the upcoming game against the Walnut Creek Lightning, or which of my 10-year olds is best prepared to play goal keeper. But I decided a few years ago that if I was going to dedicate time and energy to coaching, I might as well do it the best I can, and that by pondering, I give the boys a better chance of succeeding. I also save myself considerable stress on game day when I’m forced to improvise and I’m not really prepared.

So why do I ponder as a soccer coach and fail to do so in other settings? I think it has to do with the immediacy and concreteness of the impact. If I don’t take time to quietly consider how I prepare my boys for the next game, I see the results on the field that weekend. They play poorly. And that poor play is manifest in a score, which is pretty black and white.

Unfortunately, most parts of life are not quite so concrete. The impact of failing to reflect on our work as leaders—or as parents for that matter—doesn’t easily show up on a scoreboard. It usually manifests itself over the long-term, and by the time we see it, we fail to see the connection to our failure to take the time we need to ponder. Which is a shame, because those results are immensely more important than whether my youth soccer team wins.


Patrick Lencioni is founder and CEO of The Table Group and author of 10 best-selling books that have been translated into more than 25 languages. His expertise is leadership and organizational help, consulting to CEOs and their teams. The Wall Street Journal called him one of the most sought-after speakers in America. Yet he is first and foremost a serious Catholic, husband and proud father of four boys.

Patrick Lencioni is the founder and president of The Table Group, and a prolific author of best-selling books on business management, particularly in relation to team... MORE »