May 28, 2024

Heads Up: The Antidote to Leadership Malpractice

Clinician Leadership

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“I’ve been guilty of leadership malpractice,” one healthcare leader told me. He’d been so busy running though his work days, focusing on deadlines and deliverables, that he hadn’t invested adequate time in quiet reflection, creating conditions for deep insights and novel ideas to emerge. “Strategic thinking is a core leadership competency, but I’ve only practiced it after work hours instead of making it a standard workday practice. What am I doing?” — he vented. It was a “V8 moment,” and he felt ashamed.

His case isn’t an isolated example. Many leaders have a visceral reaction to quiet reflection, succumbing to pressures to be doing something at all times. But a leader who’s running with their hair on fire can’t lead effectively. Worse yet, they might not even realize they’re running in the wrong direction.

As leadership coaches, we view “Heads Up” time — a regular practice of quiet reflection — as essential for interrupting our clients’ auto-pilot so they can access new insights. To borrow a term from Lean Manufacturing, time spent in quiet reflection is standard work for executive leaders: a means for producing results in the most effective way possible.

What is an insight?

Before we examine how leaders can generate astute insights on a recurring basis, it’s helpful for us to consider what makes up an insight. In Your Brain at Work, researcher David Rock defines an insight as an experience that comes suddenly, not following a logical progression to a solution.

“It comes suddenly and is surprising, and yet when it comes you have a great deal of confidence in it. The answer seems obvious once you see it,” he writes. Because insights involve unconscious processing, “they often come at the most unusual times when you are putting no conscious effort to solve a problem: in the shower, at the gym or driving on the freeway,” Rock explains. 

If you are facing a problem that needs a creative solution, maybe you should let your subconscious brain solve that problem, Rock adds.

Impasse precedes insights 

When facing a dilemma, our prior experiences often lead to variations of the same old way of thinking, which can create an impasse in problem-solving. To overcome that impasse, “the projection of prior experience has to be actively suppressed and inhibited,” Rock writes.

One obstacle is that your prefrontal cortex, where your conscious processing happens, is a very busy, noisy place. Get it out of the way and the solution often appears.

Why leaders resist quiet reflection

Humans prefer Doing to Thinking. We’re so averse to deep thinking, many would choose pain over being left alone with their thoughts, studies showed. In 11 studies, researchers found many participants preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts for just 6-15 minutes! 

“Research has shown that minds are difficult to control, however, and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits,” researchers explain: “Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.” 

What this means for you: Becoming an effective, transformational leader requires training yourself to neutralize this resistance and create a habit of deep reflection.

Cultivating deep reflection with Heads Up time

In Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, Psychologist Daniel Kahneman teaches us about dual thinking systems (fast and slow) that fight for control in our brains. Fast thinking is instinctive, while slow thinking is deliberate:

Fast Thinking
Slow Thinking
snap judgements automatic impulsivedeeper conclusions insights novel ideas

To grow your slow thinking “muscle” you’ll need to carve out “Heads Up” time regularly. I’ll explain:

Heads Down time refers to the time and effort you pour into doing the work, taking the next step, or performing the next step. It’s focused on deadlines and delivery, avoiding distractions and influences from your surroundings.

During Heads Up time, you’re focused on possibilities with curiosity and awareness. You’re questioning things, welcoming outside influences, and considering what could be.

Leaders I’ve worked with practice Heads Up time in a variety of ways: taking a daily morning walk, sipping coffee in their backyard, reflecting quietly during long drives, and more. As my colleague Lee Angus shared in an earlier post, one of his clients — an executive at one of the nation’s largest health systems — builds regular trips to a nearby hockey rink into his schedule. “The repetitive, circular movement slows down his brain and insights pop in, which he records in his notebook,” Lee writes.

Sitting Back and Leaning In: two “flavors” of Heads Up time

Studies tell us there are benefits both to letting our minds rest and wander (as in the hockey rink example above) and in directing focused attention to a problem or idea. For that reason, Heads Up time can take different forms: Sitting Back and Leaning In. 

Sitting Back: regular quiet time to reflect.

If quiet reflection feels like a struggle, mindful meditation can be very beneficial. Your prefrontal cortex (the active thinking part of your brain) is a very busy place. By practicing quiet reflection, you’re creating space and opportunity for novel insights to surface that would have remained suppressed otherwise.

According to the American Psychological Association, other benefits of quiet reflection include stress reduction, more cognitive flexibility, less emotional reactivity, and improved working memory, among others. As the Harvard Business Review puts it, “the busier you are, the more you need quiet time” to quiet inner and outer chatter, and to facilitate clear and creative thinking.

Leaning In: intentional focus on a project, problem or plan.

This version of quiet time is focused on creating optimal conditions for creativity and problem-solving. In writing this blog, for instance, I purposely set aside time at the end of the day when I know I could focus my attention and thoughts, and put them into words.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey touches on Leaning In Heads Up Time, illustrated by Quadrant 2 in the diagram below. Quadrant 1 is always screaming for our attention, but wise leaders recognize that unless they devote time and attention to Q2, the truly important things will never get done. 

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About the author

Eric P. Norwood, LFACHE, PCC

Eric P. Norwood, LFACHE, PCC is a trusted, experienced advisor to C-Suite leaders, helping them improve their performance individually and corporately. He is a catalyst for change for his clients.

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