My friend, Kathy Macdonald, an organizational
design consultant, thinks of leaders as bus drivers. As she explains in
the workshops she teaches, bus drivers are the ones up front driving
the vehicle forward within sight of their passengers. Along the
journey, they keep their eyes on the road and call out the stops.
Friendly bus drivers go one step further; they provide a running
narration suggesting people look out the window to catch a glimpse of
this sight or that.
Considering leaders as bus drivers may be prosaic – after all, isn’t
leadership more glamorous? Couldn’t a leader be likened to an airline
pilot? That’s certainly more sexy even exciting. Kathy prefers the bus
driver because the driver is accessible, visible and communicative –
untrue of today’s pilots who, for security reasons, fly behind locked
doors and speak via intercom. Bus drivers are more like regular folks,
right out in the open. They are one of us – an example that many
managers can emulate.
In the Driver’s Seat
One reason that the bus driver analogy works is because it
complements other leadership metaphors, which likes leadership to a
journey through time and space. Movement, either physical or
metaphysical, is inherent in leadership and so we look to leaders to
provide not simply direction but also good company along the way.
It’s the same with vision statements. These organizational directives
tend to fall by the wayside because they are too remote from everyday
reality. Employees cannot get their heads around what the vision means
to them so they do what so many employees do when confronted with the
unknown – they ignore it. That’s why good leaders, ones in touch with
their people, must strive to make the vision concrete and specific.
As with all difficult challenges, if you break it down into smaller
pieces you can size it up, surmount it and move forward. Managers must
do the same for their people. Here are some suggestions.
- Declare the destination. The first thing good bus drivers do
is announce where the bus is headed; they want to make certain their
passengers have selected the right bus. Managers should do the same.
While it might be tempting to smirk and say everyone knows where we are
headed, my response is don’t be too sure. Just as some passengers may
have to get off the bus because they have selected the wrong one,
employees often do not understand where their organization is headed.
Why? Because no one has ever bothered to tell them. Never assume when
it comes to vision statements; distribute them to your people. Go one
step further; explicate what the vision means to your department. For
example, if your organization aspires to be number one in its market,
what does your department have to do to support that goal? Share your
ideas but be certain to invite suggestions from others.
- Hand out maps. Change initiatives, like bus trips,
succeed when people know what to expect along the way. So hand out a
map. Your map is different from a roadmap but it contains plenty of
road signs. Your strategy is the interstate highway; your objectives
are the cities and towns that you will pass along the way. The more
specific you can be, the better off you will be. Since vision
statements have long time frames measured in years, people lose focus.
- Create milestones. Have you ever picked up a map in a
tourist destination like Orlando or Hollywood and seen icons depicting
theme parks or popular sites? The icons are typically drawn larger than
scale and pop out from the page to grab attention. Managers can do
something similar by identifying major milestones, e.g., improved
quality, new process implementation, new product launch, etc., and
invite the team to turn them into icons or 3D artworks. Post them in
the energy room, the place where your team gathers to think, plan and
create. Seeing them on the wall will remind people what they are
working toward as well as helping to keep things light.
- Think small, too. One of the things that organizations
involved in change overlook is the small stuff. Leaders, as is their
nature and purpose, think big picture. They measure change in terms of
organizational forces, often overlooking that change is a people-driven
process. Without people, or without a leader who thinks like a bus
driver, they will get lost in the stars.
Kathy Macdonald suggests that managers think small, too. For example,
imagine what the next 30, 60 or 90 days will be like. Ask people what
will be different and write down their answers. Choose your metrics and
be specific. For example, will people show up on time for meetings,
will people log fewer hours, or will calls to the customer care center
be fewer in number and shorter in length? Chart your progress against
these things and share the results with everyone. By attaining short
term goals, you boost confidence for achieving long term goals.
- Spread the good cheer. Work is hard; change is
harder. But you don’t have to act so serious all the time. When the
team reaches a milestone, including the small ones, acknowledge it as
well as the people who helped to fulfill it. For small milestones,
consider posting acknowledgements on the wall, plus treats for the team
like snacks, candy or fruit. For bigger milestones, ask people how they
would like to acknowledge the occasion – team dinner with spouses,
tickets to a concert or sporting event, or perhaps some comp time. A
little bit of recognition can do wonders for team morale and provide
people with the energy they need to keep on the journey of change.
In the Driver’s Seat
To be certain, navigating change is a great deal more difficult
than hopping a ride on a bus. Change is not a pleasant process; by
nature it is disruptive. Few of us like to be jolted out of our comfort
zone. But the reality is that life, especially life at work, is all
about shattering that zone. Managing a department of 10 people can
sometimes seem more like central bus depot with people coming and
going, deadlines looming and receding, and new challenges related to
time, resources and people arising every day. Finding sanity in such an
environment is a challenge.
That’s why considering leaders as bus drivers works so wonderfully.
It underscores their need to connect with their people. Driving a bus
is not something that children aspire to do. It pales in comparison to
becoming a firefighter, police officer or an astronaut. But many who do
drive buses are individuals who enjoy the company of others. They also
like the sense of autonomy that comes with piloting their own ship (so
But most of all good bus drivers are cheery, likeable sorts who enjoy
pointing out where the riders are going and how long it will take to
get there. While so much of leadership is aspirational and challenging,
it is reassuring to share the journey with a friendly “driver,” one
who’s willing to point out the milestones along the way. Humble, yes,
but more fun and memorable. All aboard!