The surprising advantages of practicing “heads up leadership”


Published on: December 2019

Written by: Sarah Woods

Recently as I stepped off the elevator onto the executive floor at a client’s office, I noticed through a sidelight the CEO at his desk staring out the window. At the time, I thought it was odd given how busy I know his calendar to be, but I decided not to mention it at our meeting. However, a few weeks later, I noticed it again as I ran into him getting a coffee in the breakroom. I was used to seeing him multi-tasking, checking his phone while pouring creamer into his cup, or talking into his Bluetooth while walking down the hall. What was going on here? We caught up at the start of our next meeting, and I shared my observation, asking, “Is everything okay?” He laughed and said, “Never better…. I just got tired of being ‘heads down’ all the time.” He had literally made the decision to untether himself from his devices and become more present.

Here’s how he described what’s changed for him since trying out what I’ll call “heads up leadership.”

  • He’s observing and hearing more about what’s happening in his company
  • His team is interacting more with him and problem-solving in real time
  • He feels less anxious and stressed by all the input and data coming at him via email and notifications
  • He’s thinking more expansively, strategically, and creatively, making connections between things he hadn’t seen before
  • He feels calmer and more in control… and he’s getting a better night’s sleep

Imagine that. We have long operated on the assumption that knowledge is power; that having the data and facts at hand in real-time improves efficiency and effectiveness. The problem is, the way we get data has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, and we haven’t retained the art of gathering the full picture. Because of the ready access we have to deep pools of information, we rely on concrete inputs that push us down into the weeds on isolated sets of data and rob ourselves of the time to rise above, synthesize and sort information to arrive at true insight.

The risk is that heads down leadership forces us to jump from input to input, pushing balls forward based on scenarios and urgent issues. Decisions get made without full context, and the costs can be high. Take the extreme example of the lost Mars orbiter built by Lockheed Martin for NASA in 1999. A simple math error where the Lockheed engineers used English measurement and the NASA team used metric led to a malfunction on the $125 million craft, and the probe was lost. Despite many opportunities for the error to be caught, heads were down while the program pushed forward, and no one noticed until it was too late.

What are you missing in your business? At what cost? Our research shows that business growth and innovation occur when leaders are fully present in the moment; observing, engaging, asking questions, listening, and encouraging the flow of information that falls “between the lines” of concrete data sets. These behaviors are not just nice to have if you have the time. They will propel you forward to deliver on the opportunities in your business you may have missed otherwise.

Take these 5 actions to practice “heads up leadership.”

  1. Reduce your dependence on your device for inputs and seek other ways to gather information.
  2. Allow yourself time to do nothing but think, observe, process information, and explore ideas.
  3. Make time in weekly meeting agendas for open discussion on topics; ask “what do you think?”, then listen.
  4. Literally pick up your head and make eye contact. Stop multi-tasking in conversations and become fully present.
  5. Walk around, notice what’s being done or said, ask questions, ask why.

In Erin Myer’s book The Culture Map, the INSEAD professor describes cultural practices around the world that impact business interactions. In Japan, she describes the norm of “reading the air” as a means to capture the nuance and layers of information communicated – what she terms “high context” communication. For busy leaders, it’s hard to read the air when you’re tethered to electronic inputs, but it’s meaningful and essential for making sound business decisions…and sleeping more soundly.

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