Out of the driver’s seat

I once described a particularly contentious planning exercise as watching a bunch of people all try get into the driver’s seat of a car at the same time. Some of us managed to muscle our way in, only to find that no one else would get in the car, or that others were sitting on the hood, or that someone had sacrificially laid themselves down on the ground in front of the wheels. After a few weeks of this, mostly we were all standing around, or sitting on the curb, tired and exasperated. The car never made it out of the lot.

We’re wont to reach for transportation metaphors when it comes to planning or leading: trains pull into stations, cars drive down the road, milestones accumulate behind us. Cars, in particular, are such an enormous and often unquestioned element of our lived experience that references to driving—a process, a project, a plan—arrive with little fanfare or attention. We reach for the wheel the same way we might drive to drop our kids off at school, or take the usual route to a friend’s house—which is to say, reflexively and automatically.

Probably my commitment to being a pedestrian is coloring my take here, as most of the time, my experience with drivers involves trying to avoid getting run over. But I worry sometimes we’re too quick to draw from the driving metaphor. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, as I’ve talked about my own work and that of the roles that reported to me as driving various practices or operations. I’ve heard my colleagues do the same, more times than I can count. I hear often it from people I talk to, both in the affirmative—“I need to drive this project over the finish line”—and in the inquisitive—“Who is driving this initiative?”

But I wonder: once someone steps in as the driver, what is everyone else to do? There may be moments in our careers when we’re content to simply be a passenger, to go along for the ride, but I think most of the time we want more agency than that. We want to contribute, to work together, to do something to move the project forward, to see some bit of ourselves reflected in the outcome. A car leaves very little room for the kind of meaningful work that nearly everyone I talk to yearns for.

When I think back to that contentious planning exercise, I think that’s why it failed: we were a bunch of senior leaders, all with the expectation that we’d have a lot of agency in our work, and the authority and privilege to refuse to act without it. None of us was willing to simply get in the back and shut up. At the time, I thought one of the problems was that we hadn’t agreed on who was driving. But now I realize that it was the car that was the root our of trouble: we needed a different model for leadership, one that didn’t empower some of us at the others’ expense.

Now when I talk about my own practice of leadership, I don’t reach for the driver’s seat. I’m more wont to talk about facilitating, or listening, synthesizing, practicing, weaving. Often I’ll talk about several of them at once. None of those words completely encapsulates what I think great leaders do, and it may be that no one word is ever totally the right one; words are tricky that way. But good leadership doesn’t reduce people to dutiful commuters; instead, it gives them the space and means to act and play and do the work their skills call them to do. Best to leave the car where it is and go for a walk.