Leadership is like driving in the dark

The truth is, I’m getting older. For last few decades, a few of my best friends from college and I have spent four days of March Madness together. We lay in recliners, live off of appetizers and finger foods, drink gallons of southern sweet tea, and watch every single basketball game for four straight days! But this year we struggled to stay up for the late games, we talked about eating a salad, and even suggested going for a walk between games. And then there is my friend who has self-prescribed reading glasses because she can’t read her March Madness Bracket. So she bought some reading glasses at Walgreens but she decided it was just her right eye that was bad so she took out the left lens. I can’t take her seriously when she is looking at her Bracket while wearing her one-eyed reading glasses! Yep, we are getting older.

As I was preparing to leave I explained that I wanted to get on the road because I didn’t want to drive in the dark. There was a time in my life when I felt invincible and driving all night didn’t bother me, but at this stage in life, I like to see what is up ahead.

But driving in the dark is a lot like leadership; keep your headlights on and you’ll be fine. Pay attention to the road signs, recalculate as need, and take care of your passengers, that sounds a lot like leadership to me.

Great leaders are aware of the fact that we can’t see too far ahead but that we need to keep moving. Some people want to wait until they can see the entire journey before they even get started, but not great leaders, we have to be able to drive in the dark only seeing what our headlights allow us to see.

When driving in the dark with just our headlights to guide us we need to do three things:
1. Pay attention to the signs. This is true in leadership as well. There are signs everywhere telling us what is up ahead and how we need to navigate the road we are on. As leaders, we need to understand that signs come in different forms. Sometimes they are tangible, like a quarterly report which reflects the financial health of an organization. Other times they come in the form of feedback or insights from those around us. And then there are the moments when signs appear as our intuition.  It is important as leaders that we pay attention to the signs.
2. Recalculate as needed. The signs will tell us what we need to do but as leaders we but have the courage to take action. When you are in your car and you see a sign that says to slow down you do that just, but too often leaders want to continue at a high rate of speed regardless of what the signs say. There are too many leaders who refuse to recalculate because their 5-year, 10-year, or 20-year plan says to keep going at this speed. Great leaders recalculate.
3. Take care of your passengers. All great drivers take care of their passengers. Have you ever been driving and found yourself making a sudden stop and your right arm instinctively reaches out to protect the person in the passenger seat? That’s how we need to treat our people at all times. If our people need to us to slow down, to take a different route, or to stop so they can take a picture and enjoy the view then that is what we need to do. Great leaders take care of their passengers.

I once worked for a boss (I say boss, not leader intentionally) who didn’t trust anyone or anything, and oddly enough she didn’t even trust herself. So even when the signs were as clear as day, she couldn’t recalculate because she didn’t trust the information. She just stuck to her plan which might have worked a year ago but was now outdated. As a result, she hurt a lot of people which lead to significant employee turnover.  She ran several athletic departments into the ground because of her inability to pay attention to the signs, recalculate, and take care of her people.

But what’s amazing about leadership is the fact that we can make the entire journey in the dark with just our headlights on. If you pay attention the signs, recalculate as needed, and take care of your passengers you’ll be just fine driving/leading in the dark.

Leadership is like driving in the dark.