When you’re hiking or walking through unfamiliar terrain, you need to alternate keeping your head up and keeping your head down if you don’t want to trip up, hurt yourself or others. If you never look down, you could step into a hole or miss a step and twist your ankle. If you never look up, you miss the scenery, a detour or better path.

Likewise, teams and leaders need to alternate heads up and heads down time if they’re going to be successful, avert risks, and spot opportunities. 

Heads Up/Heads Down, Defined

A core principle of Thinking, Fast and Slow by Psychologist Daniel Kahneman are dual thinking systems that fight for control in our brains. 

As Kahneman explains it, our brains use fast and slow thinking systems. Fast thinking is instinctive, resulting in snap judgements. It’s automatic and impulsive. Slow thinking is deliberate, drawing deeper conclusions and insights. These two systems are constantly fighting for control of your behavior. 

On a practical level, your fast brain drives heads down behaviors, while the slow brain thrives during heads up time.

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

Heads up happens when we slow down, observing what’s changed, and scanning our surroundings. During heads up time, we’re focused on possibilities with curiosity and awareness. We’re questioning things, welcoming outside influences, and considering what could be.

The trouble is the slow brain is often crowded out by the fast brain. Wise leaders can draw on the strengths of both if they learn how to slow the fast brain to access slow thinking.

A client of ours, John, is an executive at one of the nation’s largest health systems. John noticed many a-ha moments sparked when he let his mind rest and took some distance from the daily grind. I asked John what he enjoyed doing for fun and relaxation. John was a hockey player, it turns out. 

With a hockey rink near his office, I challenged John to build regular trips to the rink into his schedule. And so he did: One hour every two weeks, John straps on his skates, places his notebook on a bench, and skates around the rink. The repetitive, circular movement slows down his brain and insights pop in, which he records in his notebook.

For Mark, another healthcare leader, his heads up time was the two hours it took him to fly to Denver to work with me. During that time, he disconnected and moved into heads up space. We’d then work together, and he’d fly home, using the return flight as additional heads up time to process and figure out how to integrate what we’d discussed.

My personal heads up time is my morning routine. I get up insanely early to watch the sun rise and go for a walk, before anyone starts texting me. My best solutions, whether for my own challenges or something I’m helping a client with, tend to emerge during this time.

Making “Heads Up” a Habit

Like any habit, building a consistent heads up practice takes commitment. You can give yourself the best chance of making the habit stick by practicing the following:

  1. Figure out what works best for you. For John, it was the skating rink. For me, it’s early morning walks. What helps you tune out the world?
  2. Determine the frequency and duration that works for you. Can you carve out a few minutes each week? View this time as an investment in yourself and your organization.
  3. Make the commitment, both to yourself and to others you trust as accountability partners.
  4. Track your progress, keeping notes of insights.
  5. Be persistent. You’ll be tempted to ditch your heads up time to put out the latest fire. Stick with it — you’ll find your heads up time can stop many fires from breaking out in the first place.

Finally, it’s worth noting common habits of leaders who practice heads up leadership:

  • They’re less dependent on devices for inputs, seeking other ways to gather information.
  • They devote time to think, observe, process information, and explore ideas.
  • They make time in meeting agendas for open discussion on topics.
  • They’re fully present in conversations, maintaining eye contact, without multitasking.
  • They walk around, noticing what’s being done and said, asking questions, and asking “why.”

When you allow yourself to slow down, look up, and take in the world around you, your view invariably expands revealing new paths and opportunities that might have remained hidden otherwise. I trust you’ll find it transformative, as I have.

► Building your heads up muscle often takes more than desire alone. Could you use some help? Let’s chat.



Lee Angus
About the author

Lee Angus is the president of MEDI Leadership, an executive coaching firm which focuses solely on leadership development in the healthcare industry. Lee has nearly twenty-five years of consulting and coaching experience, with sixteen of those years being work with Healthcare Administrative and Physician Executives.
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