Leadership Vertigo: How the Best Leaders Go Off Course

What To Do When You Are Off Course

Do you know a leader who insists everything is fine when everyone else knows trouble is ahead?

Have you watched someone so oblivious to signs and signals that employees are not engaged?

How do leaders accurately assess and view how they are perceived in an organization?


My friend Tanveer Naseer recently co-authored Leadership Vertigo: Why Even the Best Leaders Go Off Course and How They Can Get Back On Track.  It’s a thoughtful read designed to help leaders accurately diagnose and solve problems with culture and leadership.  I recently spoke with Tanveer about his book. Tanveer leads his own leadership consulting company and is an award-winning leadership blogger.


False Signals and Leadership Danger Ahead

What is leadership vertigo?

Let me first start off by explaining what vertigo is. For most of us, the word vertigo brings to mind the famous scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s film where we see the lead character looking down a staircase and seeing the floor below suddenly pushing off into the distance.

In reality, vertigo refers to a perceptual phenomenon where our brain sends us false signals about our motion, which we believe to be true. The best known example of this is the crash of John F. Kennedy’s Jr.’s plane in the Atlantic Ocean, where his brain was convincing him that he was flying his plane level, even though the gauges on his instrument panel were telling him that he was in fact heading on a downward angle towards the ocean surface.



So with this understanding of what vertigo is, leadership vertigo basically refers to the gap between how we view our leadership and how those we lead experience it. It refers to those moments where we’re convinced our actions and words are creating the right conditions for our employees to succeed, and yet that’s not what our employees are getting from us.

This is exactly what we see in all the studies of the past few years that show that despite the growing knowledge base on how to engage and empower our employees, most leaders are still not connecting their message with their employees. It’s because they’re convinced that they are being the kind of leader their organization needs, despite all the evidence around them pointing out the contrary.


4 Key Leadership Principles

Briefly walk us through the 4 Leadership Principles of Leadership Vertigo.

1. Build community.

The first Leadership Principle, “Build Community,” refers to recognizing that in order for us to better understand the realities our employees face, we have to consistently demonstrate our respect for them as individuals; that they’re not simply there to do a job, but they’re there to help us collectively succeed because they see and understand the value of our shared purpose. And we can engender this feeling by recognizing the value of their contributions to that shared purpose, as well as promoting a culture of shared accountability to encourage equal and fair participation.



2. Develop competence.

Leadership Vertigo Book CoverThe second Leadership Principle, “Develop Competence” refers to how we show up for those daily interactions with those we lead. Are we going into those meetings and those conversations with a genuine interest to learn and understand what our employees have to say? Research has shown that emotions are very contagious and that our brains are hard-wired to pick up the non-verbal cues we give off before we even say a word.

So the minute you walk into that meeting room, your team members have already read those non-verbal cues you’re giving off, and everything you say and do is going to be filtered through that initial perception they got about your emotional state.

3. Earn credibility.

The third Leadership Principle, “Earn Credibility,” looks at something that we’re seeing more and more in discussions about leadership today. Specifically, how do we go about increasing our awareness, both of our own mental state as well as the realities of those around us? What’s critical to this principle is being open with our employees that we don’t have all the answers because only then can we free ourselves to be genuine about what it is we’re after, what it is we need, and what we can give them to be successful in their efforts.

4. Cultivate compassion. 

The fourth Leadership Principle, “Cultivate Compassion,” deals with the fact that all of us are hard-wired to empathize – we only have to look at how we collectively react to disasters around the world to see that in action. But we’re also naturally curious – we want to learn and understand what’s going on around us and why. And this last leadership principle looks at how compassion is really a combination of these two because our empathy makes us care about our employees, but then our sense of curiosity drives us to want to learn what we can do to help them.

Now each of these principles obviously has us operating when our leadership is at its best, and that’s exactly why we need to use these guideposts to evaluate whether we are in fact being the best leader we can be or whether there are issues or behaviors we need to look at to help improve conditions in our work environment.


How to Spot Leadership Vertigo

You’ve worked in all sorts of organizations with all types of people. How do you spot leadership vertigo in an individual?

One of the key indicators that an individual is suffering from leadership vertigo is when you see them convinced that everything’s is going well, despite the fact that others are telling them otherwise, or worse, the employees are checking their creativity, talents, and insights at the door because they feel unheard by those in charge.Tanveer-Naseer_Headshot

I’ve worked with a number of leaders who when I share with them some of the feedback and concerns their colleagues have, they outright dismiss the feedback and justify that they have the organization’s best interests at heart. In other words, their mind has convinced them that they are doing what they want to achieve through their leadership and, consequently, they end up tuning out the warning signs alerting them that they need to change something before things worsen.

For example, I remember working with two leaders, who worked at different organizations and in different industries, who had almost the same reaction when I shared with them the concerns many of their employees had. In both cases, their focus was more on defending their perception of their leadership – of how they viewed their efforts to improve things – instead of trying to increase their awareness and curiosity about what were the experiences of those around them.


What do you say to the new manager who doesn’t want to micromanage, wants to empower, but is also concerned about staying in touch with the necessary details?

I think the main problem in balancing wanting to keep abreast of what’s going on in your organization and micromanaging stems from how we approach that conversation. If we go in wanting to learn, to understand what challenges our employees are facing, and to learn what they think can be done to address it, it’s a lot more empowering and valuable for your employees than simply giving out what you’d do to fix the issue.

Again, we have to remember that our leadership is not defined by how much we know but by how much we’re able to draw out the natural talents, creativity, and insights of those under our care and direct those elements to fuel our shared purpose.





So if we go into those conversations with that Leadership Principle of Cultivate Compassion, where we want to learn and better understand the realities those we lead face, we will become an empowering leader as opposed to the dreaded micromanager.


How to Change A Culture

Let’s say I’m a leader about to take a new job in a completely new organization. I am told that the culture needs to change. What do you say to help me get off to a good start?

I think the most critical place to start is to understand the journey the organization has taken to get it to where it is now. Too often, when we think of culture change, we think in the drastic terms of basically ripping out the heart of the organization and replacing it with some shiny new, oft-talked about approach.

And yet, going back to my discussion of the four Leadership Principles, we have to remind ourselves that our employees are not just workers but members of our community, and they have a vested interest in both the organization’s future and past. This is why so many employees resist culture change, even if they know the culture no longer supports their vision, or worse, has become toxic over time – they have this sense of shared ownership in the collective efforts they’ve put in so far and don’t want to see those contributions tossed to the curb.

So we need to reconnect what we do with why we do what we do, and this is where we can make the first efforts to change the current culture – reminding our employees of why their efforts matter, what the future is we’re trying to create, and then showing them how certain elements of the organization’s culture need to change if our current efforts are to help us succeed in creating that future.

By connecting our past with our future, it makes change less fearsome because we can now better understand the trajectory and especially how it’s not tied to those in the C-suite but to the collective efforts we bring to our organization.


Leadership Vertigo: Why Even the Best Leaders Go Off Course and How They Can Get Back On Track

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