According to Wikipedia, autopilot is a system used to control the trajectory of an aircraft without constant ‘hands-on’ control by a human operator.

What would happen if a leader was on autopilot?

Dean and Linda Anderson, in their book, The Change Leader’s Roadmap: How to Navigate your Organization’s Transformation (2010), frame the concept this way:

“Your level of awareness impacts every aspect of your change leadership capacity, experience and outcome…This includes what you model, your emotional reactions, your willingness to change, and ultimately your outcomes…We call this expanded awareness mode the “conscious approach…. The limited awareness mode is called autopilot or the unconscious approach.”

When leaders go on autopilot, it is not a good thing. This happens when they begin to respond from a place of unconscious habits, and is further reinforced by their limited knowledge and dominant leadership style.

The autopilot leader begins to filter people and processes through these biases and assumptions and often this produces an unhealthy leadership culture

Breaking out of autopilot requires a waking up; a conscious awareness of what the leader is bringing to their leadership. For conscious leadership to occur, we should remember two things.

First, the leader must acknowledge that they, and those around them, possess a limited mindset. Mindsets are the beliefs, values, and worldview unique to every individual. Even Christians contain many individual beliefs and values (and theologies) that differ from person to person.

Second, this mindset is causative; it cause actions. How we perceive a situation influences our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The conscious leader realizes this and explores it. They also realize that their mindset is conditioned by their experience.

So, if your mindset gets you and your team moving forward, keep leaning into it! But if you are hitting the same road bumps, look for autopilot issues and address them for better results.

Where might you seek honest feedback about your autopilot tendencies?

Paul’s words to the Ephesians apply to anyone seeking to live and lead in Christ when he says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14)

‘Gracious Lord, shine your light on all that we are. Restore, renew and empower us for your glory.” Amen


Dennis Nichols is Lead Faculty for the Master of Arts in Leadership program at William Jessup University.