Good leaders know what has to be done, and they can figure out how to get it done. Great leaders know what has to be done, they can figure out how to get it done, and they have the capacity to determine when best to do it. They know that timing can be everything.
Timing must be a central and critical component of any decision-making process. Prudent timing can foster acceptance, support, and cooperation. Poor timing can engender rejection, hostility, and antagonism. The fine art of timing is by no means simple. The factors that can and do affect it are numerous and complex. Central among them is a broad and deep situational awareness. Such an awareness can only be achieved through careful and constant monitoring of changing situational factors, coupled with thoughtful consideration of potential unintended consequences. Even though such efforts are far from foolproof, they are well worth the time and effort.
To be sure, there are factors that are either difficult or downright impossible to accurately figure into the metrics of well-timed decisions and actions. There are also unknown factors, that can come out of nowhere and scuttle a leader’s best intentions. History provides countless examples of both poor and great timing.
Although romanticized in the folklore of the Old West, the Pony Express only operated for 18 months (April of 1860 to October of 1861). It could carry mail by horseback more than 1,800 miles in ten days—an amazing feat in 1860. However, by October of 1861, telegraph lines were completed between New York and California. The Pony Express was obsolete overnight. Its owners and operators were victims of poor timing.
Throughout 1940 and 1941, President Roosevelt began positioning a war-reluctant country for potential roles the US may assume in the escalating world conflict. However, it was not until the attack on Pearl Harbor that he asked Congress for a declaration of war. After such an attack on the home front, support for the war effort was all but universal, unleashing the largest war effort the world had yet seen. Roosevelt’s timing was perfect.
As a leader, a well-defined and continually refined sense of timing is indispensable.