Three Ways to Grow Your Situational Awareness as a Leader

by | Aug 12, 2020

Remember Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly —the surly, cold-hearted fashion editor-in-chief from 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada?

Merryl Streep in Devil Wears PradaSurely I’m not the only one open enough to admit to having seen —and loved— The Devil Wears Prada. C’mon. You know you were thinking it.

Anyhoo, Priestly was a hypercritical perfectionist who drove her people harder than a snow plow in an ice storm. Perhaps you have worked for a manager like that before, one who is unrelenting, and always at-the-ready with a sarcastic jab to remind you of your ignorance and inadequacy.

Or if you haven’t worked for a manager like that, there’s maybe a chance that that manager is you. (Just saying).

Miranda Priestly lacks what we’ll refer to as situational awareness: an ability to comprehend the true dynamics that are at play in a given situation—the often unspoken subtext. It is having a clear and coherent understanding of what’s really happening around you. An understanding of the objective truth. It is an ability to understand where people really are, so that you can meet them there.

They tell us about the importance of “reading the room.” Priestly didn’t ever seem to have a lick of awareness about what was actually going on in the room, nor the impact that she was having on those who were in it. She was, in a word, tone-deaf.

They talk a lot about this same idea of situational awareness in sports, where it is often referred to as “field awareness.”

In the NFL post-season in 2019, TV viewers marveled at quarterback-turned-color-commentator Tony Romo’s ability to understand what was going to happen before it happened. He understood the rhythm of the game to such a degree that he was predicting —with a high level of accuracy— which plays the offense would run before the ball was snapped.

Patrick MahomesMeanwhile, on the field, Kansas City Chiefs phenom Patrick Mahomes was cutting up defenses with an ability to read the game that far surpassed his years of experience. Mahomes seemed to know where defenses were going to be before the ball snapped. He seemed to have a homing device on his receiver. The guy was making no-look passes, for Pete’s sake!

Some chalk field awareness up to having developed great pattern recognition through years of experience. Others attribute it to an instinctive ability to read what’s going on… a sixth-sense, of sorts. I’m sure General Mills would claim its because Mahomes eats his Wheaties.

But whatever you want to call it, in the same way that field awareness is critical for high performance on the field, situational awareness is a critical skill for effective leaders.

Effective leaders must develop the ability to understand… what’s really going on here?

Here are 3 ways to build your situational awareness as a leader.

Stop, and take the time to notice. Too often, amid the day-to-day pressures of being an executive, the constant barrage of distractions, and endless stream of issues that are vying for your time and attention, we become blinded by the fog —the unrelenting cyclone of stuff that is whirling around us.

Cultivating mindfulness through regular practice can be a great way to develop the presence of mind to stop and notice what’s really happening —both internally and externally. It can help us to rise above the fog.

Check-in with those around you.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re not sure what is really going on on your management team. But because you slowed down enough to notice, you sense something is awry, and it seems like it might be holding your team back.

In this case, wondering is not a good strategy.

So just ask. “Hey gang, I want to check something out with you. I’ve observed that our team doesn’t really engage in debate or disagreement. My sense is that you all are reluctant to share if you disagree, and I think that might be because I can sometimes can offer strong opinions. I’m not sure if that’s what’s going on, but I think we’d all agree that this could get in the way of us being a high-performing unit. I really want to understand what you see from your perspective…”

Not sure what’s really going on in the environment around you? Ask the people that comprise that environment.

Understand your personal biases and preconceptions.

Each of us sees the world around us through different color lenses. The color of our lenses is shaped, in large part, by our life experiences. Problem is, the shade of your lenses can color your view of reality. Let me explain:

Perhaps your life experience has caused your glasses to take on a rosy tint —causing you to see the glass-half-full version of what’s going on around you. That’s great. Except when you aren’t aware of this sunny disposition and make the assumption that the rest of the world is as happy and upbeat as you feel. You are bound to miss the moments when people around you might be down in the dumps, or struggling. You may have no idea.

Understanding yourself and what your preconceptions are about the world around you —maybe you tend to be trusting? Or optimistic? Or skeptical? Or naive? — can help you to better calibrate with your surroundings.

So, what’s really going on around you?

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