Leading While Distracted

Daily, texting drivers cause collisions.  Distracted, driving too fast or too slow, drifting into oncoming traffic, a distracted driver runs a red light, overturns in a ditch, or something much worse. 

We call them accidents, but they are common, predictable, and inevitable.  All it takes is a little bit of inattention.  Just a little.  A few seconds.  It is true.  What you don’t know can kill you. 

In my work with leaders, I’ve seen the impact of what I’ve come to call:  “Leading while distracted.”  (LWD)

  • A Manager responds poorly to feedback alienating her closest supporters.
  • A Director laughs at an idea cutting off all future discussion of possible solutions.
  • A CEO, managing by walking around, asks questions that tell the front line he does not have a clue.

If the distracted leader doesn’t ever crash, they never know how close they are flirting with disaster.  In fact, the LWDs I’ve known assume that they are great drivers. 

Everyone around them, however, thinks their keys should be taken away.  Subordinates would rather drive themselves than ride shotgun with them.  Even other leaders know this leader needs a designated driver.  Everyone knows the leader is failing… except the leader themselves. 

Even the consultant.  Every time I work with a client, someone tips me off to the organization’s LWDs.  It might be an eyeroll or laughter when their name is mentioned.  It might be obvious the way they are talked about in the meeting after the meeting.

Even the very best leader’s driving habits are under scrutiny.  Leaders live in a fishbowl – everyone sees every move they make.  It can be soul crushing for leaders to find out what their team really thinks about them.  So much so, that they rarely ask.

I once worked with a CEO who outlawed 360 degree assessments in his company.  The last time they were used, a few brave senior leaders shared their observations.  He was so angered by the honest responses that he left work and took a 4 mile bike ride just to calm down.  Questions about his leadership were never asked again.

In my experience, leaders don’t intend to drive distracted.  And “Leading while distracted” happens to every leader from time to time.   What can you do to avoid LWD when it is you who is in the driver’s seat?  Pay more attention?   Be hyper alert about your driving?  Well yes, if you could, but you will never be distraction free, you will run red lights, miss people in your blind spot and occasionally park next to fire hydrants.  Vigilance is good but not fool proof.  The only way out of the common, predictable and inevitable distractions is to invite others to help you drive. 

At first, they will seem like backseat drivers, but if you listen and encourage honesty, you will learn where you are most vulnerable.  If you build trust, solicit feedback and listen to it, you will hear what you need to hear.  The sad thing is that very few leaders have a desire to let others share the wheel.  Even fewer have developed the skill. 

Your employees may be the right people, in the rights seats on the right bus, headed in the right direction, but who is driving?  If it is you, make psychological safety everyone’s focus.  You don’t have to drive alone.  A leader who is open to feedback and coaching from peers and subordinates is a leader that is safe behind the wheel. 

If this is an area where you need to develop new habits, let’s talk.  I will show you what is working in the best organizations and how individual leaders are creating feedback cultures.

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