Defensive Driving and Leadership

In organizations, “defensive” typically means reacting out of a sense of feeling threatened or criticized, usually in ways that create unproductive interpersonal conflict.  On a road trip lately, I found myself thinking about how certain defensive driving techniques relate to effective leadership behaviors.    In this “defensive driving” context, how defensive is your leadership?

Do you…

  • Use turn signals, e.g. – communicate your intentions before you act?
  • Share the road, e.g. – involve others through collaboration or even delegating?
  • Always scan forward, sideways and behind, e.g. – check in with others, keep an eye on what’s going on around you, and look proactively for potential opportunities to reach your destination successfully or to avoid unanticipated pitfalls?
  • Invest in regular maintenance, e.g. – consistently manage employee performance so expectations are known, employees have a clear idea of how they’re doing, and development plans are supported?

Push the Edge of “Be the Change…”

I’m always inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s quote “be the change you want to see in the world.” Any book about leadership best practices will tell us that leaders should be role models for what they want from others. I think this applies to relationships both vertically and horizontally within the organization.

  • Want your direct reports to care about their work and customers? How much do you care and how do you show it?
  • Want your management peers to inform you about events and decisions that will impact your team? How proactive a communicator are you?
  • Want your manager to tell you how you’re doing? How often do you share feedback, positive as well as critical, or even ask for specific feedback?

And, even though “be the change…” is a great quote, there are some missing pieces for leaders if you’re trying to change others’ behavior or lead a culture change. If we wait and hope people will pick up on our own newly modeled behavior changes as if they’re breadcrumb clues, we’ll have a long wait. This could be because the behavior is too subtle to break through what people have become used to seeing or that people think the behavior is a brief alteration that won’t last.

Sure, start with being the change you want to see in your organization. Then, add these behaviors to the mix:

  • Be transparent. Tell others what you’re doing, trying to do, want them to do, and why it’s important.
  • Ask for help. Engage others in the effort of holding each other accountable. Ask for help in supporting you and each other. Do you need a sign when you’re slipping into old patterns? Can the team help identify supporting actions and helpful metrics to monitor?
  • Celebrate successes. Capture and identify the wins, even if they seem like baby steps. What gets rewarded gets repeated.

Balance “Play to Your Strengths” with “Push Your Edge”

I love the idea of knowing my strengths and spending most of my time there.  When we are in the zone, it’s a place of comfort, ease, and increased energy.  Acting outside our areas of strength can come across to others as awkward and usually feels emotionally draining.  According to the StrengthsFinder assessment (, my strengths are Learner, Relator, Responsibility, Input, and Strategic.

I’m practically in heaven when I’m in the process of supporting a few close client relationships rather than attending a large networking event with people I don’t know.  However, when I overuse my strengths, they can work against me and decrease my flexibility and effectiveness in diverse situations.   If I only focus on my strengths, then I am leaving out some significant skills and behaviors that I need to be successful…there are only so many behaviors and skills I can delegate to others.  When I work with managers whose strengths don’t even come close to relating to people, they can’t afford to ignore developing some core EQ and interpersonal skills just because it’s not a strength (assuming they want to keep their position).

There is a natural learning curve that occurs for people, e.g.:

  • Unconscious incompetence: We don’t know what we don’t know (a pretty comfortable place)
  • Conscious incompetence: We know what we don’t know (can be pretty uncomfortable)
  •  Conscious competence: We know, but have to think about it consciously (still uncomfortable)
  •  Unconscious competence: We know, but are now able to do the skill or behavior without thinking about it (pretty comfortable)

We can get competent, even unconsciously competent, in areas that aren’t naturally our strengths.  We develop that competence through consistent practice.  We don’t necessarily perform that strength in the same way that a “natural” would do it, but we put our own flavor on it and add it to our arsenal of tools and skills.

What I’ve found is that it’s not an either/or, but a both/and.  Discover your strengths and find ways to use them often and effectively.  At the same time, learn about skill gaps and behavioral patterns that could be sabotaging your success, then push your edge to develop new levels of skill and comfort.

Website Design & Development by Virtual Visibility Inc.