Beware of Leadership GPS

Car-UnderwaterLast week, a woman in Ontario made national news after she trusted her GPS so mindlessly that she followed the directions right into a lake. The image of her red sedan submerged in a murky lake dominated headlines and prompted readers to ridicule the young driver for her inability to think for herself and her over-reliance on technology. Stories as wild as this actually happen all the time. Just last year, drivers made headlines by following GPS instructions into ponds, down staircases, onto railroad tracks, into the ocean, and nearly off a cliff.

It’s easy to blame the technology in these stories, but the core issue is something much more difficult to overcome. While these drivers were on literal auto-pilot during their driving errors, we often navigate our own day on mental auto-pilot.

This is especially true when a team member is promoted to a leadership role. For years, they’ve learned their boss’ leadership, communication, and decision making style. They’ve memorized the way the leader runs meetings and the questions he/she asks. So, when the leader leaves and an existing team member is promoted, they not only try to fill the leader’s shoes, but walk the same path as that leader. And why not? It’s much more difficult to blaze a new trail than follow the comfortable worn path modeled before us. Plus, we are often resistant to change, so comfortable feels good, even when it’s inefficient.

But when we rely on tools, schedules, routines, and the models of others, we are not only on auto-pilot, but we’re blindly following someone else’s version of auto-pilot. That’s the most dangerous kind of auto-pilot, because you’re operating on the assumption that the decisions made before you were the best possible decisions. And you also assume that those decisions are still applicable under current circumstances.

One of the best advantages of bringing in a new leader from outside the organization is they challenge the status quo. They ask “why” all the time because they don’t know the answer. They have to stop and ask for directions. They see everything with a fresh set of eyes and are mindful about every step they take.

Being mindful, present, and engaged has become a lost skill, and re-training the mind to disengage from auto-pilot mode and our reliance on technology takes significant effort. More and more executives are going on mindfulness retreats for one-on-one executive coaching just to make more thoughtful, informed decisions in their daily lives.

The most difficult part of turning off auto-pilot mode is realizing that you’ve been on auto-pilot. The first step to re-engaging in thoughtful decision making is to ask why as often as possible. Why do we always meet on Mondays? Why are we relying mostly on email marketing? Why do we think our customer wants this new product? Why haven’t we tried something new? If the answer is “because that’s what we’ve always done things” that’s a glaring red flag that your leadership style is on auto-pilot.

The benefits of asking why are long-reaching. Not only do you open yourself up to the possibility of making more informed choices, but you create a culture of critical thinking. As you model the behavior of mindful, engaged decision-making, your team will follow and begin asking questions of themselves and others. The next time your leadership auto-pilot takes over and encourages you to continue driving straight ahead, ask why so you don’t risk being the next red sedan at the bottom of a murky pond.