Response? Or Reaction?

Barry Goldberg on Leadership

Response? Or Reaction?

Recently, Twitter (now called X) decided to limit the tweets users can publish on a daily basis, irritating its commercial subscriber base. Why limit tweets? “To ensure the authenticity of our user base we must take extreme measures to remove spam and bots from our platform,” the company said.

The first step in solving any problem is to understand what the real problem is and what its sources are. But if the issue is too much spam, vitriol and abuse, how hard would it be to identify bad actors and close their accounts? Why limit all tweets? The decision seems more like a reactive response than a thoughtful understanding of the roots of the issue.

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As a practicing executive coach for nearly 20 years, one component of solving this kind of conundrum is very clear to me: There is a clear difference between a focused response to any challenge and a knee-jerk reaction. And knowing that difference is one of the defining hallmarks of effective leadership.

A reactive response is often emotionally driven — a response to some level of fear, greed or anger. It often deals more with the symptom than the actual challenge.

I work with leadership models that recognize that firefighting is necessary when things are on fire. But the larger question is often: “Is it on fire? Or am I on fire about it?” Put another way, am I responding or reacting?

The best (and best researched) way of defining leadership is built into the 360 assessment I prefer in executive coaching assignments, the Leadership Circle Profile 360. The LCP is built around the understanding that, while there are times an executive must wade in and firefight, most of an executive’s time should be invested in bringing a vision of the future to reality. The distinction about whether a “situation is on fire” versus “I am on fire about the situation” is an important one. 

That’s because a reasoned response to a challenge — one that uses curiosity and coaching — can create a developmental or teaching moment. But a confrontational, irritated or even angry reaction will garner only defensiveness and avoidance.

Few leaders have as much public exposure in their decisions as Twitter owner Elon Musk. But one of the marks of a mature, balanced and capable leader is that they are able to keep their personal upset about a situation from becoming a fire for the entire organization. Neither are they oblivious to situations that require and justify a firefight. In my experience, the most effective leaders know the difference and are skilled in choosing between responding and reacting to a challenge or an opportunity. 

Want to know how you score? A solid 360 evaluation every few years is a good idea for leaders. But the easier way is to ask your peers, direct reports and even skip-level reports. Listen to their feedback without defensiveness. Thank them for their courage and frankness. Then when you’re clear what you’ll do with the information, let them know about changes you want to make and ask them to observe and give you feedback.

For more information on DIY coaching, get a copy of Marshall Goldsmith’s “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”

I. Barry Goldberg of Little Rock is a credentialed leadership and executive coach. He trained for coaching at Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership.