Leaders: Keep Your Head on a Swivel!

Keep your head on a swivel has been cited in a football context since at least 1951, and in a basketball context since at least 1975.

The reason I use this term quite often regarding leadership is because I played both sports and coaches used the term constantly to warn players to pay attention. With football, it was to keep you from getting hurt by a blindside tackle. With basketball, it was to keep you from getting hurt by an errant pass. I learned the hard way, as I have a dental bridge from just such an experience. Trust me, I always keep my head on a swivel.

The one constant I see with organizations is they get so focused on process that they lose sight of what’s happening right under their noses. With marketplace organizations, they focus so much on profit, they pay little attention to customers or employees. With Nonprofits, they focus so much on raising money, they pay little attention to mission, employees or volunteers. Then, when the need for change or transformation arises, leaders wonder why there is such a resistance to either one.

Environmental scanning is a data collection practice. The intent is to collect information about an environment that can be used in planning, development, and ongoing monitoring. Once the data has been collected, it can be processed and analyzed to create a brief to be used in decision-making. Some environmental scanning is conducted on an ad-hoc basis, meaning only when needed, such as in response to a specific issue or concern. Other scanning is conducted on a continuum, such as an ongoing review of working environments conducted with surveys, observations, and other study methods that allow for rapid adaptations to changing situations.

Regardless of how or why, scanning and gathering data before entering the planning stage is critical to identifying organizational gaps, both cultural and operational, that could prevent necessary adjustments toward growth and sustainability. By my own admission, I’m a continual learner, which means I’m also a data freak. If there’s something I’m not understanding or don’t see right away, my natural tendency is to start gathering information, specifically by asking a lot of questions and scanning a lot of resources.

In my marketplace career, the planning and decision-making process just wasn’t conducted without environmental scans, both internally and externally. In my Nonprofit career, it was (and still is) a struggle to bring this scanning culture to a sector that has a very high RC Factor (resistance to change).

The primary take-a-way of this post is that a critical character trait and behavior of the best leaders is that they keep their head on a swivel. They’re constantly scanning the internal and external environments, looking for any signs of dysfunction, gaps, opportunities, or other information (especially with their people) that can help them, not only to be better leaders, but to keep their organizations healthy and sustainable.

When you’re not paying attention, you get blindsided. When that happens, you either come out of the game under your own power, or you get carried out.

Truth Be Told, the best leaders prefer neither option. They just want to keep playing!

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