With all the leadership practices, philosophies, tools, tricks, concepts, and advice out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. In this state of overwhelm, you might be tempted to try to do everything at once or give up and do nothing at all. At either end of the spectrum, the result is the same: making little to no change, resistance to trying again, cynicism around whether this stuff really works, or defaulting to your status quo. Instead of succumbing to information overload, you can ask yourself a simple question at any moment: is your head up or down?

Head Down: Lack of Leadership

The “Head-Down” state mirrors what might happen when your head is physically down: limited awareness, self-focus, stuck in thought, being closed off to what’s around you, only seeing the small picture, and focusing on short-term goals. Imagine trying to lead a group of people while keeping your head down the entire time. How effective might you be?

Head-Down is also metaphorical for the state of keeping your head down. In this state, the capacity for leadership becomes limited. Behaviors might include:

  • Focusing on the parts instead of the whole
  • Sacrificing long-term pain for short-term gain
  • Excluding others, not considering and/or recognizing bias and its impact
  • Not having long-term goals or strategies
  • Moving quickly to action without clear objectives
  • Overemphasis on completing tasks and getting things done
  • Not seeing or recognizing people, including their talents, strengths, accomplishments, contributions, or humanity
  • Lack of inspiration or motivation
  • Checking out
  • Giving up easily and/or making excuses
  • Lack of accountability

These behaviors inhibit our leadership. Therefore, it’s important to catch ourselves when we are engaged in them so we can make choices that align with how we want to lead.

Head-Up: Conscious Leadership

As you might have guessed, “Head-Up” is the opposite state of leadership. Head-up behaviors are indicative of thoughtful, intentional leadership that creates change and engages others. Behaviors might include:

  • Seeing how all the parts connect and impact one another
  • Serving others
  • Making informed decisions and choices
  • Examining and counteracting bias and its impact
  • Seeing the whole picture and having an expansive vision
  • Noticing what needs attention and responding to it
  • Considering how your actions impact others and the system
  • Taking right and aligned action
  • Thinking and behaving inclusively
  • Being resilient, agile, and emotionally intelligent
  • Correlating the cause and effect between the system and the individual
  • Continuously improving self, others, processes, and systems

These behaviors strengthen our leadership. They are also within our control, which means that we can choose to enact them. Additionally, catching ourselves “doing something right” can be rewarding and affirm our effort and development as a leader.

Head-Up or Head-Down: Which Will You Choose?

Using “Head-Up/Head-Down” to assess your leadership is simple: in any given moment, ask yourself “Is my head up or down right now?” Although your literal physical posture can be a good indicator, use this question to assess your internal or external leadership approach.

We don’t even need to memorize all of the exact behaviors that fall under Head-Up or Head-Down. When we take a moment to pause and reflect, it’s generally obvious which state we’re enacting. For example, behaviors like holding tension, negativity, blaming, not following through, gossiping, shutting others out, rushing, or acting out of fear are easy to notice in a given moment and indicate Head-Down. Behaviors like empathizing, considering consequences, positivity, connecting, giving constructive feedback, being transparent, checking our bias, and developing a plan indicate Head-Up. With only two categories to choose from, almost all behaviors fall neatly into one of the two. This makes it easy to identify the behavior and take immediate and appropriate action.

Upon getting a clear answer, we can then choose to continue leveraging Head-Up or change our behavior if it’s Head-Down. In addition to its simplicity, the good news is that we can ask the question as many times as we want throughout the day without needing to remember any fancy or complex leadership philosophies.

To use this practice effectively, consider:

  • What are some common behaviors that you associate with Head-Up? With Head-Down?
  • What will help you remember to ask, “Is my head up or down right now” throughout the day?
  • When you catch yourself in “Head-Down,” what would help you shift your state?