“Either I can run it or it will run me.”

I think this is what is known as a “truth bomb.”

This statement is from Julia Gillard, who was Australia’s prime minister from 2010 to 2013 and is the only woman to have held the position. She was interviewed for HBR’s November/December “Life’s Work” column.

The question she was answering was “as prime minister, how did you get things done?” Her full response was:

“The government machine is so big that I literally used to say to myself every morning, “Either I can run it, or it will run me.” Enough gets fed up to you that if all you did was respond, you’d be busy. But you wouldn’t be driving your agenda. So you need to be ruthlessly clear about that agenda and force the machinery to support and prioritize it—in internal decision making, expenditure reviews, implementation, communications.”

This idea of either being run by the system versus consciously focusing on what needs to happen is at the very heart of leadership. It is incredibly challenging to not let time only be spent in response mode. I talk a lot with leaders about “getting on the balcony” in order to take a broader view, see what is happening, and see what needs to happen. Conscious choices to carve out “balcony” time; to say yes and no more judiciously; to delegate and to step back are core to effective leadership. No one else can – or will – do that for you.

Gillard’s message also underscores a core reason I most frequently engage my clients in The Leadership Circle 360° Profile as part of their developmental journey. Its core design measures what Gillard states so succinctly: as a leader, how often am I purposefully moving toward what matters most (the Creative Competencies)? Conversely, how often are my actions a reaction to my fears or to the world around me (the Reactive Tendencies)?

Learning to balance the constant onslaught of what’s coming in with what actions, intentions and commitments matter most is one of the most important capabilities leaders can learn. This isn’t a destination; it’s a regular and ongoing leadership practice.

What are some ways you manage this tension? How do you ensure you’re running it rather than it running you?

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