We examine the present in light of the past
so as to better understand the future.
John Maynard Keynes

* With apologies to Karl von Clausewitz

The need for non-action

‘We need more non-action!’ was the view expressed by many of the people I worked with last week. They were, as I mentioned in my last post, officers in the British armed forces studying at the Strategic Studies Institute at the University of Exeter, and I was there giving a lecture on leadership paradoxes. We discussed several paradoxes, but one that really roused a lot of discussion was the paradox of action and inaction, or non-action.

This is a paradox with a long pedigree. Laozi (Lao Tzu) wrote about this in China 2,500 years ago, urging leaders to adopt a posture of stillness and let nature take its course, rather then constantly being active and interfering. (Laozi’s term for non-action, wu-wei, was later translated by French Jesuits as laissez-faire, and so entered the jargon of modern economics).

What Laozi was talking about, and what the group at SSI picked up on very quickly, is that there are really two concepts here. Inaction means in effect failing to make a decision and letting things carry on as they are; non-action means taking a purposeful decision to do nothing, believing that this is the best thing to do. One of the officers used the metaphor of a hiking party getting lost on a moor in fog. Inaction would mean carrying on walking as if nothing had happened, which would put the party into potential danger. Non-action would mean taking the decision to sit down on the spot and wait for rescue, taking no further action.

The problem, as we all agreed, is that non-action is frowned upon. In our work, whatever it is, we are assessed and rewarded and promoted on the basis of the actions we take. ‘Better to do something, even if it is wrong, than nothing at all’, is a mantra I have heard many times. The problem is that many people cannot distinguish between inaction and non-action. Purposeful non-action can in some circumstances be the right decision. Yet those who opt for non-action run the risk of being seen as indecisive, weak, incapable of action. So we join the Flash Harries who believe in action at all costs, and take actions that we know in our hearts are wrong.

Sometimes, sitting and doing nothing is the right course. We need to get better at knowing when to act, and when to choose deliberately not to act.


Comment made by
Sandra Norval
29/12/2013 at 16:43
This makes me think back to an analogy I used in one of your lectures, about how a monkey swinging through trees would adapt its course when it reaches the edge of the forest. It may have changed course but it is still swinging through trees.

The question that should be asked is "Should we respond, adapt or diversify?".

Respond suggests a relatively swift reaction, simply addressing the immediate situation.

Adapt suggest perhaps more of the same but with a few adjustments to continue the same actions, albeit on a new path.

Diversify suggests a pause for thought, non-action while an analysis is made of the root of the situation arising and action once all options have been considered. The challenge is that pause for thought could lead to accusations of inaction, causing a change of heart to respond instead.

In reality swarm theory kicks in: "If they are going that way then so must I". It's a brave leader who spots the lemmings and chooses not to follow; peer pressure can be a very persuasive adviser.

Those who make different choices and persevere with them, steadfast until they come to fruition, end up being treated like rock stars. But they probably never saw that coming, no matter how much they planned!

Great to see you blogging Morgen, I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts, unconstrained by course objectives!

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