Recently while driving in some very snowy and treacherous conditions, I witnessed many types of interesting behavior from my fellow drivers. There was one older model pickup truck stranded halfway up a steep hill. Since the truck was of the rear wheel propulsion variety and had no substantial weight in the back, the driver was effectively stuck midway up the hill. At this point, under those conditions he had no ability to advance up the hill and the prospects of going back down were prohibited by the fact that with each attempt to go up, he slid further backward in an uncontrolled drift toward an adjacent ditch on the side of the road. I witnessed other vehicles of all types that were being operated in various ways. Regardless of the propulsion type, some, it appeared, were operated with great purpose, consistency and success toward their destination, while others labored along operated by drivers apparently unsure either of their skill or the capabilities of their cars. The net result was they were unprepared and operating in ways that actually made it more unsafe for the other drivers who seemed to have competency and certainty about them. It was during these moments it occurred to me: leadership is a lot like driving in the snow.
The basic premise is that unless we have been taught how to drive in the snow, the vehicle type may not matter much. Additionally, even after being taught, a lack of practice or poor application of skill can still result in consequences such that even operating a 4-wheel drive truck may not help avoid. So what does this have to do with leadership?
Let’s take a look at our pickup truck driver. Either he was desperate to get somewhere or simply lacked some fundamental knowledge or experience with regard to the very light back ends of trucks. Either way a bad situation resulted. How many times have we experienced leaders who seemingly head into situations daily without context or awareness of what is going on around them and worse yet, demonstrate an apparent lack of awareness of their own abilities and the effect it has on others. Our friend in the pickup truck, like many in leader roles created an unsafe and unproductive situation for others based on poor choices and a lack of skills. Would you follow that person?
Other drivers emulated similar and often familiar traits of good leaders. Many were moving with agility and a certainty of purpose embodied in the deftness and skill with which they operated their vehicles. Aren’t great leaders the same way? When we experience great leadership, don’t we find those same traits? Not only are they clear about where they are going, but we too experience that clarity. Aren’t we also comforted and encouraged by their abilities? Effective leadership embodies things like good listening, coaching and developing people and therefore demonstrates a solid awareness of how actions and choices can affect others. Much like our good snow drivers they are aware of their surroundings, demonstrate the skills and know the limits and capabilities offered by their environment.
So, like driving a 4-wheel drive truck in snow, if you lack the skill you can still end up in a ditch. The same is true in leadership. It boils down to you, your skills and the choices you make.