The Risk of Driving the Car

Everyone’s navigation app said something different as we reached the dead end of a side road near the Barcelona airport. Under normal circumstances, finding a rental car return does not require GPS; however, when you are in a foreign country and don’t understand the signage, you must employ technological aids.

But technology failed us that morning.

Our international data plans routed us in different directions, and the dead end where our car sat was also a “dead zone,” so none of us had a signal. Everyone did have an opinion, though, and none of them agreed.

This situation wasn’t novel. We’ve all found ourselves in irreconcilable circumstances, with my differences in opinion yelling in our ears. These conflicted situations can be as innocuous as what to order for the monthly birthday lunch, what areas of an organization need to receive more funding, and what areas need to have funding cut.

In these moments of conflict, a leader rises to guide the way, picking the restaurant and allotting funding, hopefully inviting participation in the discussion, weighing each option wisely with data, and then making “the right call.”

But it isn’t ever that simple.

People dispute the call even after participation, input, and research. Some parties may not be on board or could be subversive. Someone is waiting to say, “I told you this was the wrong choice,” when things seem to fall apart, or the lunch delivery takes too long.

We may make the wrong call despite our best efforts and intentions.

These situations represent the risk of leadership.

It’s easier to be in the backseat giving directions than to be behind the wheel, which is why many people choose to remain in the backseat. They make their commentary to coworkers or online, bragging about how they would drive if they only had the wheel.

Let’s be honest; the “they” is really “us.” We are guilty of being backseat drivers offering directions to the person behind the wheel with little responsibility for the car but plenty of opinions about the route.

Maybe we need to stop and ask if there is a reason we aren’t behind the wheel? For many of us, the fear of failure keeps us in the backseat.

Every leader driving the car has experienced failure. It won’t be the last time. They’ve all gone in the wrong direction and hit a dead end. They’ve needed to practice humility in asking for help. They’ve dealt with the “I told you so” coworkers and team members and the whispered comments of, “I could do it better.” And yes, for many, they’ve dealt with those same voices online.

But they assume the risk.

And if we want to be in the driver’s seat one day, we also need to get comfortable with that risk. It’s much different being in that front sea with hands gripped tight on the wheel, just as confused as everyone else while a cacophony of contradicting voices rings out. It takes genuine humility to know you might end up getting it wrong. It takes strength to make the call forward.

If you want to be a leader, you need to embrace the risk of leadership and step up when the opportunity to drive is there. There are moments, more frequent than we realize when someone holds out the keys and asks, “Who wants to drive this one?” Everyone at the table glances around to see who will risk it and who will be comfortable. Most people choose comfort and find an excuse.

“Oh, this isn’t in my wheelhouse.”

“I’m already too busy.”

“Someone else should get a chance at this.”

These are other ways of saying, “I’m scared I might mess this up and get us lost.”

When we let fear keep us in the backseat, we miss the valuable experience of getting it wrong, hitting the dead end, and the need to correct course. Without that failure in more familiar territory, we will never be able to drive into places that aren’t familiar.

We sat at the dead end as everyone stated a case for why their particular navigation app was giving the correct directions. Our driver listened to all the input and started driving in the direction he felt would get us to the rental facility. Immediately, he was met with resistance but stayed faithful to his call. Within five minutes, we were in the airport rental car parking lot, and the voices of dissent turned to voices of praise.

You will have an opportunity to drive the car and make sure you capture it when it happens. Take the risk of leadership and the reward of experience because the difference between the drivers and the passengers is often simply who has the guts to grab the keys and say, “I want to drive.”

Featured photo by Taras Makarenko:

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