A traffic jam model 
of leadership

The commonalities between good drivers
 and good leaders.

Leadership is one of those subjects where everyone has an opinion; you can ask 10 people and get 11 different answers. Every leader has his or her own way to define the subject and every manager and supervisor searches those definitions to find one they can understand and interpret for themselves. However, if you are a front-line supervisor, you may not speak the same language as your president, and therefore his or her personal account of leadership might not work for you. As a result, you are left searching other definitions and trying to determine whether you have what it takes to become an effective leader.

Since most of us drive vehicles, the next time you are behind the wheel, put yourself in one of four categories:

Are you the driver who gets in one lane and stays there for the duration of your trip?
Are you the driver who rides the bumper of the car in front of you?
Are you the driver who weaves in and out of traffic?
Or, are you the driver who reads the other cars on the road and makes strategic decisions?

These categories may be indicative of your role in your organization. Think about those same questions phrased in a business context:

Are you the employee who finds that one job and stays there throughout your career?
Are you the employee who pressures colleagues; thinking that will make them move faster?
Are you the employee who quickly moves from job to job or from project to project; thinking that will help you get to the top faster?
Or, are you the employee who observes the current situation and uses that information to make strategic decisions?

If you are still unsure whether you are leadership material, take a closer look at how you drive.

Maybe you are the driver who finds that one lane that makes you happy. You don’t care about what’s going on in other lanes. You don’t care what other cars are doing. You just want to continue on your path until you reach your destination. We find people like this in business all the time. These are the people who have found a job that they enjoy, they perform well enough to keep going but they are not going out of their way to make things happen. They are not in a hurry for anything, they are just there, and doing only what is expected. But they aren’t going to change lanes on you either. They aren’t looking for other opportunities, unless you cut them off.

We all know those drivers who ride on the bumper of the car in front of them. They can’t see what is up ahead because they have to focus only on that one car. They can only react to the immediate problems instead of planning ahead, and they place all of the blame on the other cars. Are you are this driver? Perhaps you are focused on your isolated area and you can’t see the forest for the trees. When someone gets in your way, is it their fault? Chances are it’s no one’s fault but your own. You put yourself in this position, take responsibility for it and learn how to prevent it from happening again.

What about that annoying driver who takes advantage of every opportunity by weaving in and out of traffic. It doesn’t matter whether or not those small victories are short lived. If this driver sees an opportunity, he or she takes it regardless of the impact it may have on others. Isn’t it funny when this person passes you but then gets stuck in a slow lane and can’t get around the other cars? Every organization has a person like this, which means that some of you reading this article are that person. Know this; you aren’t doing anyone any good, including yourself. We are all headed in the same direction, and if we all work together we all get there so much faster. Making others look bad doesn’t make you look good, and when those people eventually pass you in traffic, do you really think they’ll leave room for you?

Good drivers (and good leaders), on the other hand, are more strategic in their decision making:

A good leader watches the road ahead and anticipates. I don’t mean the car in front, I mean two cars ahead, three cars, to the next hill, or the horizon—as far down the road as they can see. The car directly in front of them is still in their line of sight, and the good leader can adapt to any sudden or abrupt changes. Perhaps for a short while, the leader must change focus and concentrate on what is immediately ahead. But as soon as possible, they should go back to scanning the horizon. In business, a leader has to make decisions based on what they see coming, not what is happening in the present. Sometimes you may find yourself in a slow moving lane but since you are looking ahead, you know that things will soon pick up because you already made the required adjustments.

A good leader watches other lanes. You can know a lot about what is coming by watching others. Especially watching the vehicles ahead of you in the other lanes. Sure, they are in another lane, but the things that affect their driving may soon affect yours. So if you see them slam on the brakes, you might want to ease off the gas a bit. Benchmarking yourself against others in your industry can give you the best picture of your current situation and what may be in store.

A good leader checks their mirrors. There are two main reasons why a good leader checks the mirrors often. First, you have to know where you’ve been to really understand how far you’ve come. It’s important to check that every once in a while. You’ll either find that you are proud of yourself for all that you have accomplished or you’ll realize that you haven’t come as far as you thought and you’ll know that you need to work a little harder or make changes. Second, you have to know what is coming up behind you. Remember the lane-changer we were just talking about? Sometimes they start going too fast and they lose control. A good leader sees this coming and gets out of the way. You can’t let them bring you down, too.

A good leader leaves enough room in front. First, you have to give other drivers the chance to make their own decisions without fear of you running into them. People are less likely to make good decisions when you’re right behind them; they are afraid of a crash. Second, you can’t see as well when you’re right behind someone. You have to give yourself enough room to see around that next car. Lastly, you have to give yourself time to react, in case the next car does make a sudden move. In business, if you are too close to those around you it is often hard to make those difficult decisions. Stay close, just not too close.

A good leader gives other drivers a chance to change lanes. Sometimes all people need is a chance to show you what they can do. Yes, sometimes they get in front and then slow down. Not every decision is going to be a good one. Just move over, go around them, and start again. A good leader would never speed up and block those people with the thought that “this is my lane, how dare you try to enter my lane.” Again, everyone is going in the same direction, and if we all work together, it will be a better experience for us all.

A good leader pays attention to signs. This does not mean that a good leader always does what the sign says immediately. For example, if the sign says, “accident ahead, merge right,” the leader doesn’t automatically move as far to the right as possible. But the good leader uses this as a tool to further judge what is coming. He or she knows that eventually everyone is going to have to move over, but when is the best time to do it is up to each individual. This also does not mean that the leader waits until the last possible minute, resisting the change right to the bitter end. The good leader simply decides for himself or herself when is the best time to adopt the change.

Yes, sometimes even a good leader finds that one lane that he or she is comfortable with, and he or she stays in that lane maybe a little bit longer than they should; they are content to just go with the flow. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20; eventually we all wake up from that lackadaisical state and return to making strategic decisions. A good leader knows that sometimes you have to ride a vehicle’s bumper a little closer and is not afraid to get close to another vehicle, as a teaching tool, when necessary. Sometimes leaders have to use the horn to let someone know that they did something wrong. A good leader will, on occasion, need to make a few sudden lane changes to get out of a bad situation. Sometimes you have to, if you want to get where you are going. But a good leader knows the right and wrong times to take these actions and they are all part of a grand strategy, in which success is observed through the feedback of others.

Burt Reynolds, MBA, CCSP
Burt Reynolds, MBA, CCSP, began his career in the private sector shortly after graduating from the University of Texas at San Antonio but quickly returned to his alma mater. He worked his way up the ladder within Business Auxiliary Services and now serves as communications coordinator for the department.

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