There is a phenomenon common in many vehicular sports that occurs when the driver’s gaze is focused too near the front of the vehicle. With the field of vision narrowed, the pace at which the world around you moves seems to speed up. This forces you to act very quickly to changing conditions, which results in a herky-jerky driving experience. In race circles, this is called ground rush.
But the sense of a sped up world due to an unnecessarily narrow field of vision is not unique to the racing world. Individuals and companies experience this everyday in the normal course of leadership.
What is ground rush?
Probably the best example of this narrow vision is with new drivers. When you put an inexperienced driver behind the wheel of a car, the primary concern for the driver is keeping the car inside the lane. His gaze will naturally float to just beyond the hood of the car, and he will dart his eyes back and forth between the lines on either side of the vehicle. Whenever the car approaches one line, he will yank the wheel and steer the car the other way. When he gets too close to the other line, he pulls back in the other direction. The result is uncomfortable and likely a bit terrifying for the unfortunate soul sitting in the passenger seat.
Over time, experience breeds familiarity, and the new driver can raise his eyes slightly and navigate the lanes a bit better. With his eyes focused further down the road, turns are not surprises, and he can more gradually adjust the changing conditions on the road.
When his eyes go up, the field of vision widens. Movement is no longer framed by a small area in front of the car. With movement in the context of the overall landscape, everything actually slows down. In fact, the larger the landscape, the slower the perceived motion. For example, staring out the window in a plane flying at more than 500 miles per hour feels calm because the field of vision extends 35,000 feet to the ground below.
What does this have to do with leadership?
If we apply this same concept to companies, the feeling is the same even if the context is slightly different. Rather than framing up the rush around physical space and speed, consider the pace of the business and time.
Most young leaders tend to focus their energy around projects and deadlines. They manage their teams (and sometimes their companies) around deliverables that extend oftentimes just a few weeks into the future. Their entire frame of reference is immediate.
These types of leaders are heavy users of status meetings and weekly updates. They crave information in the moment, because it frames up how they want to manage the next set of tasks.
The upside of this type of management style is that they are extremely responsive. When something crops up, they are able to change direction immediately. If there is an unexpected project (as with a customer issue), they are uniquely capable of rallying their team to put out the fire.
Most of us have been on these types of teams before. It’s actually somewhat gratifying because, if we are being honest, there is a certain excitement about being in the middle of a firefight. Leaders who cultivate this type of environment crave the exhilaration of a deadline, and they wear with pride the war wounds and scars. It is an accomplishment to be seen as the go-to person when everything is going wrong.
The downside of leadership ground rush
But have you ever been on one of these teams and then looked back at the last year and wondered what you did? Where did all that time go? What happened to all those big picture ideas and plans you had talked about at the beginning of the year?
In pursuit of the moment, you end up sacrificing the vision. The things you know you needed to do just don’t get done. There is always something more urgent. In essence, these leaders are no different than new drivers bouncing their way off the guardrails as they make their way down the road.
Anyone watching this kind of driving thinks it’s ridiculous. But I’m staying between the lines! Yes, but you have no idea how to drive.
Is this really that different from managing deadline after deadline? But I put out every fire! Yes, but the organization and the company are really no better off than at the beginning of the year. The most important things have not been addressed, and the lack of basic care and maintenance has resulted in a team unprepared for the next set of milestones.
And the impacts on the team can be disastrous. They are the unfortunate souls in the passenger seat. They experience the frustration of constantly-shifting priorities. They are deprived of the feeling of success as big, important projects are completed. And they are often the ones who suffer from the lack of basic infrastructure that would otherwise make them more productive.
As with driving, the key to becoming a better leader is to raise your vision above what is right in front of you. It’s not that you can be unaware of the short-term obstacles in the road; you do have to stay between the lines. But when you focus your gaze further down the road, everything slows down and you can gradually prepare yourself for what lies ahead.
But how do you raise your vision up?
First, realize that there is virtually no cost in asking for something. People will make requests of you and your team without considering the cost because it is not their burden to bear. When these requests come in, rather than answering with an immediate yes, consider what you are actually trading off. And then make sure that you communicate.
It might be fine to tackle a short-term request, but does management really want to give up a major strategic imperative for a string of these? It’s hard to tell if you never frame up the question that way. If instead you treat everything as an individual request, no one ever really knows that it’s all coming at the expense of the future of the company.
The point is not that you should skew everything towards long-term vision; companies do have to put fires out. But you need to be able to see the larger landscape to know what the appropriate action is. And the nice thing about pulling your vision up is that it gives you a lot more time to make some of these decisions that seem difficult in the moment. Oddly enough, it allows the entire organization to move faster while perceiving a much slower environment.
[Today’s fun fact: Nutmeg is extremely poisonous if injected intravenously. And another reason not to mainline spices.]