A Heuristic to Judge Leadership Effectiveness

By Steve McKee

People use heuristics — shortcuts to decision making based on readily available information — every day.  We place our hand on the forehead of a child who’s not feeling well to assess the likelihood he or she has a fever. We slam the door of a new car to get a sense of how well-built it is. We gauge the quality of a new television based on where its price falls relative to the other TVs on display at the electronics store.

Heuristics aren’t perfect, but most of the time they serve us well, particularly in unfamiliar situations or when we need to make decisions quickly — both common circumstances faced by people in leadership. Here’s a heuristic I’ve found helpful in getting a sense of how I’m doing in that regard at any point in time: Am I on my heels, standing still or leaning forward?

Stanford University neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman says that in response to external stimuli, those are basically the only choices we have. We can either be retreating, flat-footed or in pursuit of something. “There really aren’t any other motor responses for an animal, including humans,” says Huberman. “There’s stay put, back up or go forward.”

The paradox of a leadership heuristic

If you’re like me, you regularly find yourself in all three states of being. I regularly get knocked off my game, sent reeling backwards, often surprised, and sometimes afraid. In some respects, I feel that every time I land a new assignment or challenging consulting engagement. Nobody hires my firm for the easy stuff, for things that have simple answers or obvious solutions. We love a good challenge, of course, but once we get the nod, I always feel somewhat intimidated. That can be crippling unless I recognize it for what it is.

Then there are times when I just can’t get going. Maybe I don’t know what to do. Maybe I do know what to do but it’s unpleasant or unclear, so I procrastinate. Stalled, stuck or stale: that’s how my firm characterizes many of the situations in which our clients find themselves when they call us. It’s somewhat ironic that I often find myself stalled, stuck or stale when I’m unsure what to do next — or first — or it doesn’t feel like I’m making any progress. I often say (to myself as well as others) that you must go through the wilderness to get to a clearing, but the wilderness can be dark and lonely. The only way out is through.

The most productive state in which to operate is leaning forward. Moving ahead. Taking ground. Another truism I repeatedly mutter is “the first draft is the worst draft,” which I use to convince myself to just get something down on paper or up on the whiteboard. It’s OK if it’s not very good; in fact, it never is. But once I have something to work with, I can work it into something. Physics tells us that it’s easier to steer a car that’s moving than one standing still, and that’s as true in the world of ideas as in the physical world.

Assess where you are now

Ask yourself now: At this moment are you on your heels, standing still or leaning forward? It’s a simple question, but that’s what makes it easy to answer at any time — for yourself or for the team or organization you’re serving. It’s a simple diagnosis that can lead to a ready prescription.

If you’re on your heels, first get out of any immediate danger. If you’re digging a hole for yourself, stop digging. If you’ve been knocked off balance (by circumstances, events or even a stray comment you’ve overheard) find your center of gravity again. Stabilize. Get your wits about you. Take a deep breath, literally and figuratively. If you need to excuse yourself from a meeting and step into your office, the bathroom or your car, do so.

If you’re standing still — stalled, stuck or stale — find a way to get in motion, even if you’re not sure the exact direction in which to head. Start as small as you need to but get moving. Editing is much easier than authoring, whether you’re writing a book or starting a business. Back to physics: There are two types of friction, one that limits how fast things move against one another (kinetic friction), and one that keeps things right where they are (static friction). Kinetic friction is why all but the heaviest suitcases coming off the airport conveyor belt tend to gently slide down the baggage carousel. Static friction is why the lightest suitcases sit at the top until they get bumped lower. The smallest force required to start something in motion is always greater than the force required to continue its motion; friction is strongest when something isn’t moving. Lean into the challenge and you’re likely to find it’s not immovable.

Once you’re back in motion, it’s likely you won’t need the heuristic because you’ll be preoccupied with the progress you’re making. But watch your speed so as not to get out of control. Look for warning signs of danger. Be willing to change direction or find a detour when you run into an obstacle. And know you could lose your footing again at any time.

It would be unrealistic (and a bit boring) to expect to never be knocked back on our heels. But on our heels is no place to live, and nobody will follow a leader who’s standing still. Get into the habit of using this heuristic and you won’t be for long.

Originally published on SmartBrief on Leadership

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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