Automated Complacency

According to Pater (2014), complacency is one of 10 top leadership mistakes. I wonder whether or not the other nine are caused in part by an excessively-relaxed mindset. The additional nine mistakes noted by Pater are arrogance, distraction, disconnection, command and assume, tunnel vision, overcomplicating or setting unrealistic goals, failure to use leverage, reinforcing ineffectively, and “no juice.”

Despite all its benefits, automation is associated with complacency because the technology may disconnect us from the processes we manage (Carr, 2014; Strand, Nilsson, Karlsson, Nilsson, 2014). The very tools that create vast efficiencies have the unintended consequence of depleting our skill levels. Supplanting the knowledge work formerly conducted by highly-educated professionals are computers, which guide pilots in flying planes and doctors in diagnosing patients as well as architects in designing buildings (Carr, 2014).

The saying “use it or lose it” is relevant, especially when our skills become rusty from lack of use. Consider the following mistakes attributed to pilot error:

Even a slight decay in manual flying ability can risk tragedy. A rusty pilot is more likely to make a mistake in an emergency. Automation-related pilot errors have been implicated in several recent air disasters, including the 2009 crashes of Continental Flight 3407 in Buffalo and Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean, and the botched landing of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco in 2013 (Carr, 2014, para. 11).

A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) task force last year found that pilots have become passive and reactive as they watch the automatic pilot control the flights. The desired state, of course, is proactive anticipation that comes through hands-on engagement. In fact, the FAA recommended that pilots fly “by hand” more frequently A study by scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands found that people using sophisticated software suffered from short-circuited thinking whereas those using simple software developed a deeper capacity to perform work with fewer mistakes, which produced higher-quality strategies (Carr, 2014).

In short, it is a mistake to rely too much on technology to avoid working hard because it may result in “de-skilling” and an accompanying higher error rate for the given task. “When those mistakes happen, designers respond by seeking to further restrict people’s responsibilities—spurring a new round of de-skilling” (Carr, 2014, para. 26). We need to control technology as opposed to letting the technology control us.

The solution endorsed by Carr (2014) is not to abandon technology. Rather, it is to use “human-centered automation,” which     permits technology to assume routine functions already mastered by humans, but requires human control over complex decisions. For example, airline pilots, doctors, accountants, engineers, architects, and other professionals would rely on their own judgment rather than depending on machine-generated algorithms to make decisions for them.

Keeping our skills current is essential to long-term success. Complacency creates a trance-like state in which we disconnect from our passion and disengage from our work. As I ponder complacency at the intersection of fitness and leadership, I surmise we can use exercise to feel present in the moment. Exercise is a low-tech strategy for improving cognition and brain plasticity (Pieramico, Esposito, Cesinaro, Frazzini, & Sensi, 2014). Oppenzzo and Schwartz (2014) found that creativity is increased when individuals increase their levels of physical activity. Perhaps exercise conquers physical complacency to better prepare us to fight off the urge to shut down mentally when technology makes our lives so much simpler. Training our bodies out of a complacent state may very well prevent snoozing through important decisions that are handled best by human ingenuity rather than by machine automation.


Carr, N. (2014, Nov 21). Automation makes us dumb; human intelligence is withering as computers do more, but there’s a solution. Wall Street Journal (Online) Retrieved from

Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking.

Pater, R. (2014). Overcoming the top 10 leadership mistakes. Professional Safety, 59(6), 30-32. Retrieved from

Pieramico, V., Esposito, R., Cesinaro, S., Frazzini, V., & Sensi, S. L. (2014). Effects of non-pharmacological or pharmacological interventions on cognition and brain plasticity of aging individuals. Frontiers in systems neuroscience, 8.

Strand, N., Nilsson, J., Karlsson, I. C., & Nilsson, L. (2014). Semi-automated versus highly automated driving in critical situations caused by automation failures. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.


Exercise and BMI – Mediating Factors for Better Episodic Memory and Executive Function

The Wall Street Journal reported the research of Stephan, Caudroit, Jaconelli, and Terracciano (2014), who found a connection between how we perceive our age ( called “subjective age”) and our cognitive function as we grow older. Essentially, a younger subjective age correlated with sharper episodic memory and executive function among the 1,352 subjects in the study. This improvement was mediated by a lower body mass index (BMI) and a higher frequency of regular exercise. In other words, those who exercise and have a lower BMI are more likely to have better cognitive functioning in old age.

Sharp cognitive skills influence leader effectiveness. According to Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991), leaders must interpret and integrate information, formulate strategies, solve problems, and make sound decisions. Moreover, ” Effective managers have been shown to display greater ability to reason both inductively and deductively than ineffective managers” (para. 58). Followers respect people in authority who possessive cognitive capabilities.

Taken together, the association between fitness, cognitive functioning, and effective leadership is worth noting. Much of our health is under our control. Those of us without medical restrictions can choose to eat well and exercise. The research by Stephan and colleagues suggests that doing so will reduce our subjective age and increase factors that shape our cognitive function. Indirectly, this prepares us to lead effectively.

This research holds promise also for senior managers, many of whom reach these positions as they grow older. Maintaining a lower BMI and remaining active will improve one’s odds of mental acuity. According to Henry Mintzberg, their roles include serving as figurehead, leader, liaison, monitor, disseminator, spokesperson, entrepreneur, disturbance handler, resource allocator, and negotiator.

Feeling younger than one’s biological age provides benefits that reach beyond well-being. How exciting to know that so much of this is under our control!


Kirkpatick, S. A., & Locke, E. A. (1991). Leadership: do traits matter?. The executive, 5(2), 48-60.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.

Boosting Executive Brain Function for Better Leadership

The New York Times article How Exercise Can Boost Young Brains shared a new study, which found that regular exercise over one academic year improved the executive function, or the ability to impose order on one’s thinking, among eight- and nine-year-old students. Their concentration skills improved. They were also better able to switch between cognitive tasks. The benefits apply to other age groups as well. For example, Best, Nagmatsu, and Liu-Ambrose (2014) learned that executive function declined less among elderly women who exercise. Nouchi and colleagues (2014) established that executive function, episodic memory, working memory, reading abilities, attention, and processing speed improved after four weeks of combination training (aerobic, strength, and stretching) performed by 64 healthy older adults. Behrman and Ebmeir (2014) suggest that exercise may increase self-esteem, improve mood, and have a favorable effect on cognitive functioning later in life.

Last week, I blogged about the possible connection between exercise and leadership. Research has shown that cognitive skills are important, especially when one considers the need for creative problem-solving in today’s economic climate. David Day and colleagues (2014) conducted a review of the research over the past 25 years, and noted six skills that are germane to these demands. The cognitive skills include problem solving, planning and implementation, solution construction, solution evaluation, social judgment, and metacognitive processing (or self-monitoring one’s own cognitive processes). Leaders need to sharpen their cognitive skills to stay on top of the game.

Exercise is one of many paths to improve cognitive functioning (e.g., playing chess, recombinant growth hormone, antipsychotics, resveretrol, psychopharmacology, etc.). However, I was astounded when I started researching the question of how to improve cognition because physical activity was mentioned so frequently. Research connecting exercise and leadership is still exploratory, but studies connecting exercise and cognition are abundant enough to influence my personal decision to exercise. It is an inexpensive path to improved executive function and problem-solving skills.


Behrman, S., & Ebmeier, K. P. (2014). Can exercise prevent cognitive decline?. The Practitioner, 258(1767), 17-21.

Best, J. R., Nagamatsu, L. S., & Liu-Ambrose, T. (2014). Improvements to executive function during exercise training predict maintenance of physical activity over the following year. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8.

Day, D. V., Fleenor, J. W., Atwater, L. E., Sturm, R. E., & McKee, R. A. (2014). Advances in leader and leadership development: A review of 25years of research and theory. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 63-82.

Nouchi, R., Taki, Y., Takeuchi, H., Sekiguchi, A., Hashizume, H., Nozawa, T., … & Kawashima, R. (2014). Four weeks of combination exercise training improved executive functions, episodic memory, and processing speed in healthy elderly people: evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Age, 36(2), 787-799.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.