This Spring we saw the devastating effects of autopilot in the Boeing 787 Max planes. It made me think about how many of us go through each day on autopilot.

How often are you in a conversation with someone and rather than focusing on what they are saying, you are thinking about something else, or planning your response? Or even more severe, have you ever been driving and suddenly become aware that you forgot to take a turn you intended too? Those are examples of times when our mind are on auto-pilot. At those moments we’re not present – we’re not paying attention to what’s in front of us – we’re distracted. You may say, “That’s normal.” But think about the impact – especially as a leader.

Being on auto-pilot causes us to react to situations rather than respond as we might choose. In these situations our thoughts and emotions have control over us, rather than us having control over our thoughts, emotions and actions.

Try this quick exercise:

Step 1: Pause for a moment and think about a difficult encounter you’ve recently had with someone – a situation you find extremely frustrating. Can you feel yourself tense? If you had to engage in a conversation right now how would you approach it?

Step 2: Now think about a beautiful sunset as you are sitting at the edge of a lake. The golden hue is cresting along the edge of a mountain range at the opposite shore. You see the sun slowing gliding down, closing the day. You take a deep breath.

How would you engage in a conversation after having these thoughts?

What you should notice is that our thoughts have power – and we have power. Our challenge is to recognize the power we have over our thoughts. We need to become acutely aware of our thinking – and then decide actions we want to take – rather than just being on auto-pilot.

I’m not suggesting that you regularly think about sunsets and lakes to manage your thoughts. But I would suggest that you regularly ask yourself, “Is this thought useful? Is this something I should act upon?” Or, “Is my thought unhelpful and something I should let go?
Demonstrating this power removes us from autopilot. It makes us deliberate, purposeful, emotionally intelligent leaders. And studies continue to show how emotionally intelligent leaders are more effective, successful and satisfied. So, start paying attention to who’s in the cockpit, and manage those thoughts!


  • How many times a day do you catch yourself not attending to the person in front of you?
  • Do you often regret an interaction and think about how you wish you had managed it differently?
  • Do you regularly pause and think about how you want to respond?

Start making a regular habit of noticing your thoughts.