3 signs you’re in a leadership rut


Published on: August 2021

Written by: Elizabeth Freedman

Are you in a leadership rut? It’s a hard question to answer because of the nature of ruts. You often don’t realize you are in one until you’re out of it. This is particularly true for senior leaders, who have demanding schedules and packed calendars, which may further delay the realization of being in a rut: You’re just too busy to notice.

Why is this a problem? For leaders, the risks of being in a rut extend beyond being caught in a boring routine or stuck in an emotional funk. Left unchecked, company innovation and performance suffers, engagement and morale may drop, and good talent leaves when leaders and teams fall into ruts. Leadership ruts are serious business, but what makes them hard to see is that the signs often appear in small ways. How do you know if a rut is sneaking up on you? Here are a few indications.

  1. No bright spots on the calendar. Recently, I asked a client, “What are you looking forward to on your calendar?” There was a long pause. He replied, “Not much.”  If this feels like you, it’s an important area to explore, because calendars aren’t just timetables, they mirror how we spend our days. So, take a few minutes to review your calendar on a regular basis. Too many days in a row without bright spots has an impact. Over time, it can hurt our motivation, engagement, creativity, and we may not even realize it is happening to us. Think about it this way. Are you really at your best at meetings you don’t look forward to? Eventually, too many of those impact a leader’s performance in all kinds of ways.

    How to address:
     Recognize that a great calendar won’t just happen by itself. It’s easy to get caught into a trap of thinking that we don’t have control over our calendars or buy into the old story that work shouldn’t be about fun. As good as you are, you’ll be even better if you have days to look forward to and a calendar that energizes you, so commit to making small improvements in your calendar (more bright spots and fewer meetings you dread) and you’ll yield instant results.
  2. Too much of the same. Being in the same role for a while isn’t necessarily a sign you’re in a leadership rut, so the caveat here is that “it depends.” If you’re in the type of company where most people advance or move into different roles every 18-24 months and you haven’t, it’s an area to explore. While you’re at it, consider other aspects of your work that haven’t changed in a while, whether it’s the people on your team, the work you’re engaged in, or the number of new situations or people you’ve encountered. This can lead to a blind spot buildup and dull our ability to stay fresh, embrace change, or expose ourselves to diverse people and experiences that enable us to think differently.

    How to address:
     Deliberately force yourself to mix it up, and this is particularly true if you’ve worked at the same company for most of your career. Raise your hand to do something new on a regular basis that is a stretch for you. Over the years, I’ve had clients do everything from speaking at a major client event, to living overseas, to attending a Tony Robbins seminar and walking over hot coals. This is also a time when leaders engage a coach or join groups of other like-minded leaders to get exposed to new ideas. Whatever you choose, put it on your calendar so you know it will happen. A few small tweaks can create major change and transformation.
  3. You’ve stopped dreaming big for yourself. Being in a leadership rut can often start from a place of good intentions. Perhaps you’ve been leading through a challenging time and you’ve been focused on getting through the issues at hand. The question to ask yourself is when are you not in a period like this?  If it’s always code red, all the time, it’s easy to stay in a permanent state of firefighting. This produces the worst kind of leadership rut, where we are never able to get beyond the urgent and tackle the important, and it can lead us to some dark nights of the soul, where we wake up, 10, 20 years later and regret not tending to our longer-term goals, hopes, and visions for our own lives.

    How to address:
     Make daydreaming as important and strategic an activity as any other high priority in your life and treat it seriously. Set aside time to sit in your favorite chair in a quiet corner of the house with your pen and notebook and answer some simple questions for yourself, like, “What do I dream about?” or “What do I want to do that I haven’t done yet?” Daydreaming is about unfiltered, unedited thinking, and it is where some of the best ideas for your life and work can happen. The first few times you do this, you may feel uninspired or cringe at the word ‘daydreaming.’ Forget about all of that and remind yourself it is what the most enlightened, productive leaders do to get even better.

Falling into a rut can start off innocently, like always going to the same restaurant and ordering the same thing off the menu. In leadership, it’s risky, because it limits our ability to be everything we can be for our organizations, our teams, and ourselves. Toughest of all is the fact that other people may recognize we’re in a rut long before we do. The good news is that we can address this with a few simple changes, and when we do, leadership becomes vibrant, energizing, and returns to technicolor again.

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