Balanced Leadership: When it’s Useful for Leaders to be Defensive

17054923 - Indian Businessman Doing Yoga Hand Stand Pose And Looking At His Laptop In The Office At Brown Textured Background

Typically, when a leader is described as defensive, it pertains to the way he or she behaves that others perceive as resistant, stubborn, combative, close-minded and reactionary, often when being given feedback.  Generally, these are not qualities aligned with the way we think of balanced or highly effective leaders.


As evidence of this, researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Center for Creative Leadership, correlate defensiveness to limiting a leader’s learning agility.  Thus, the research could be taken to mean that non-defensiveness is a better way to lead.  After all, learning agility is a good thing. It helps leaders be “able to be more social, creative, focused, and resilient”.

Now consider a different context for defensiveness by comparing defensiveness as a way to keep us safe.  Most of us would argue that defensive driving is certainly a smarter way to go than being non-defensive when driving.  We hope and expect that those we are sharing the road with are being as defensive as we are.  That is how we have higher odds that we will arrive safely at our driving destination.

If we accept defensiveness as the optimal way to drive, wouldn’t that also suggest we would prefer to interact with defensive leaders?  Let’s explore this.


I just took a defensive driving class.  In addition to getting some useful refreshers on defensive driving, I was struck by the idea that leading defensively, much like driving, is an effective way  to be.  I matched up criteria used to describe qualities of defensive driving to the way many leaders operate in today’s workplaces.


Non-defensive Leadership Non-defensive Driving
Generally distracted (lost in thought) Generally distracted (daydreaming) #1 cause of deadliest driving distractions
Diverted attention from being plugged into technology 24×7, alerts of each new email and text , open work spaces Diverted attention from passengers, cell phones, eating, applying make-up, GPS, adjusting controls, rubber necking, etc.
Detached awareness of the “shadow impact”  they have on others because people tend to take on the characteristics of those who have some power or influence over them. Detached awareness that driving a car is driving a piece of heavy industrial equipment that uses approximately 9 separate brain functions within every 30 second time period.
Chronic fatigue from getting too little sleep and working across multiple time zones, working or meeting for long time periods without breaks Driving hypnosis from not stopping for breaks on long  stretches of time and the brain zoning out
Imbalanced focus on Results vs. Relationships.  Less than 1% of leaders are seen as effective at both so most leaders lack peripheral vision for one Imbalanced focus from texting or talking on the phone will driving, leads to diminished peripheral vision
Chronic stress of overloaded job demands, aggressive targets, complex issues, competing commitments regularly activates “fight or flight” stress responses.  Excessive stress reduces executive brain function Heavy traffic, near misses, road rage, glutted highways and distractions inside and out of the car consistently evoke “fight or flight” stress responses.  Excessive stress reduces executive brain function
Operating under the influence of excessive stimulants (coffee, power drinks) Operating under the influence of pharmaceuticals, alcohol, over the counter medications, illegal substances
Short-sighted focus on tactics over long-term strategy, not looking far enough ahead. Driving too closely to the car in front of you;  not anticipating far enough ahead


Defensive driving is taught to ensure everyone’s safety on the road.  So how does safety look in the workplace?  Generally, non-defensive leaders are not considered to be deadly, as non-defensive drivers are.  But what impact can defensive leaders make?

Leaders who are “defensive” create safe workplace conditions.  Safety for employees equates to better communication, feedback, problem-solving, decision-making, engagement, relationships, and much more.  Defensive leaders can make a big difference on these factors that are key to the success of any business.

Perhaps it’s time we rethink about how to get non-defensive leaders “off the road” and support them to become more defensive. Consider how defensive leadership can impact your personal leadership development plan.

Do you see similarities between the way you lead and the way you drive? Tell us below!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *