Imagine rushing to an important meeting, your mind racing through the agenda, when a light on your dashboard suddenly flickers to life. It’s a symbol you vaguely recognize but hope never to see. Your heart skips a beat. Do you ignore it, hoping it’s nothing serious, or do you pull over, risking being late but potentially saving yourself from greater trouble? This moment of decision isn’t just about car maintenance; it’s a metaphor for the warning signals we encounter in leadership.

The Language of Dashboard Warnings

Auto dashboard warning lights are crucial indicators of a vehicle’s health and safety. Ignoring these warning signals can lead to severe consequences, from costly repairs to dangerous accidents:

  • Check Engine Light: This engine icon isn’t just a suggestion; it’s a plea for attention that could signify anything from a loose gas cap to severe engine trouble. Ignoring it is a gamble with your car’s health and your safety.
  • Tire Pressure Warning Light: The exclamation mark inside a flat tire isn’t just a friendly reminder; it’s a warning that could prevent a blowout. AAA reports that 1 in 4 vehicles has at least one underinflated tire, a risk that’s easily mitigated but often ignored.
  • Oil Pressure Light: Symbolized by an oil can, this light is the indicator of low engine oil pressure, a precursor to overheating and engine damage. It’s not a suggestion to top up your oil; it’s a dire warning.
  • Battery Warning Light: The simple battery icon signifies charging system issues. It’s the leading cause of roadside assistance calls, yet it’s often disregarded until it’s too late.
  • Brake System Warning Light: The exclamation mark inside a circle is a critical alert for brake system issues. Overlooking this warning compromises not just your safety but everyone on the road.

One more to add to the list:  LOW FUEL (or EV Low Charge). Depending on your risk tolerance, some look for the nearest gas/charging station as soon as the light flickers on. Knowing there’s still SOME fuel in the tank, others will keep driving and driving. Occasionally, they lose the bet and find themselves stuck on the side of the road. 


The Leadership Dashboard: A Coachable Metaphor for Vigilance

Just as a car’s dashboard provides crucial alerts to prevent mechanical failures, a leadership dashboard offers a framework for self-assessment. Ignoring these signals can steer a career off course just as surely as neglecting a car’s warning lights can lead to a breakdown.

Do you see any of these as you glance at your leadership dashboard today? And if you do, what’s your decision: ignore it, deal with it later, or pull over and fix it now? Here’s a set of common danger signals I’ve seen working with leaders with questions for you to consider.

  • Ignoring the Fuel Gauge:   Running Your Team on Empty. Are team members looking increasingly stressed and fatigued, frequently mentioning heavy workloads, unrealistic deadlines, or lack of resources? Are your engagement scores dropping while absenteeism and turnover increases? Are you seen as pushy?
  • Navigation System Offline: Losing Direction Without Input. Do you see a disconnect between your expectations and what your team is delivering? Are others expressing confusion about project directions or decisions while noting that their early feedback and concerns were ignored?
  • Anti-Theft System Engaged: Locking Out Team Trust and Engagement. Are team members holding back in meetings with you? Perhaps they feel their input isn’t valued and will trigger a no-win debate with you. Do you sense others are working around you rather than involving you directly when discussing problems or seeking advice? 
  • Cruise Control Stuck: The Dangers of Autopilot Complacency. Do team members lack enthusiasm for new projects or initiatives, preferring to stick to “business as usual?” Do others rarely approach you with fresh ideas and creative solutions? Perhaps they expect an adverse reaction from you? Do you find yourself resisting anything new lately?
  • High Beam Warning: Blinding Instead of Illuminating the Way Forward. Do you find team members hesitant to share concerns with you? Have you found others avoiding casual conversations and only approach you for impersonal business transactions? Might others see you appearing unapproachable and avoid direct communication with you?
  • Empty Passenger Seat: Forgetting to Bring Your Team Along.  Do your new team members express feeling isolated or undervalued? Are you blindsided by individual problems or troubling team dynamics? Do you feel disconnected when promoting your priorities and ideas with your team or colleagues?

Reflecting on Your Dashboard

One more to add to the list:  Lack of a Dashboard!  

My study of leadership derailment points to a common cause of career failure: Either consistently ignoring the signals and feedback others are giving or not caring enough to know there are lights to consider. These low-coachable leaders drive on and eventually find themselves in the ditch of derailment. 

Ignoring the warning lights, whether on your car dashboard or in your leadership style, can lead to unintended detours or derailment. Reflect on these signals:

– What feedback have you received that you might be ignoring?

– How have changes in your role or context required you to adapt?

– Who can serve as a mentor, a “warning lights dashboard,” offering you perspective and advice?

Much like driving, leadership requires attention to the immediate road ahead and the instrument panel that guides our decisions. Regularly check your leadership dashboard and respond to warnings with action.

Heeding the Warning Lights

Whether literal lights on your dashboard or metaphorical signals in your leadership journey, attention to these alerts can prevent minor issues from becoming major problems. Just as you wouldn’t ignore a flashing warning light on your car’s dashboard, don’t overlook the signs of stress, disengagement, or misdirection in your team. By staying vigilant and responsive as a coachable leader, you can ensure your vehicle’s longevity and safety and the health and success of your leadership and your team.