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.

Do Athletes Make Better Leaders?

According to a study of 400 female leaders on four continents, women with a background in sports are perceived as better leaders by women in leadership positions (click here to read the study published on October 10, 2014, and here to view summative graphs and charts). These leaders see athletes as team players whom they characterize as determined, and presenting a strong work ethic. Of the 400 subjects, 61% say sports contributed to their career success; 74% believe a background in sports will accelerate a woman’s career. The top three leadership abilities they see sports involvement developing are motivational and team-building skills as well as the ability to see projects through to completion. They view a competitive disposition as an asset. Most are likely to be influenced by a job applicant’s sports background in their hiring decisions.

This particular research examined women only. My research examined the lived experiences of male and female leaders who are avid exercisers (Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training). Both male and female leaders in my study are team-oriented. They are focused, disciplined, and see projects through to completion. Much like the leaders in the above study, they are competitive, and direct these spirited energies toward improving themselves and the units for which they are responsible. Their love of community in their HIIT practice translates to team-building in organizational application.

Taken together, one cannot claim a causal relationship between athletics and better leadership. What these studies do suggest are perceived connections between one’s athletic background and effective leadership among leaders with such a past. These perceptions are worth exploring further, and in a broader context. For example, it would be interesting to compare multiple measures of leader effectiveness (organizational performance indicators, employee engagement levels, etc.) among subordinates, board members, and other organizational stakeholders for leaders with and without athletic backgrounds.

Despite the need for more research, one should not dismiss the benefits perceived by leaders with a background in sports. They possess expertise concerning their own careers and what has influenced their successes. I hope that they do not bring bias to their hiring decisions, particularly if they seek to hire a candidate with an athletic background when athletics are not valid predictors of job performance.

Research on the benefits of exercise across many domains abounds. My hunch is that exercise improves how we lead. Exercise is not the only path to effective leadership. However, if it becomes a proven tool to increase one’s leadership capacity, aspiring and current leaders ought to take note.

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