A lesson in driving

  • Published
  • By Essye Miller
  • 75th Communications Group
The 75th Communications Group (Provisional) leadership team met to discuss a book; the first we'd read as a group. The title was Monday Morning Leadership (8 Mentoring Session You Can't Afford to Miss), written by David Cottrell. I was within 90 days of arriving on the base and thought it would be a great way to get to know one another; an opportunity to bond and share experiences. Volunteers from the group would facilitate the discussion.

The first facilitator passed out compact cases - we wouldn't find out why until much later. Then a glass bowl appeared. Little did we know that it contained questions based on the content of the book. Each of us would pull a carefully folded question from the bowl and do one of two things after reading it aloud... pass it to the person on either side or answer the question. The folks in front of me were pretty straightforward in their actions. They pulled and answered a question. In each case a discussion ensued. Eventually the bowl came around to me and I decided to put a little variety into the process by exercising my options. I pulled the first question and it read "What's the toughest decision you ever made?" I passed it to the person on my left. After discussion, I pulled again. The question read "Have you had to make any adjustment to your work/lifestyle within the last 90-days? If so, what adjustments did you make?" I passed it to the person on my right and more discussion ensued. I could only pass twice, so I had to answer the third question... "Most people have difficulty making the transition from employee to manager and from manager to leader. How do you rate your transition?"

At that moment, I realized that I'd never given much thought to my transition from employee to manager to leader, much less rated the transition. Now, I was driven to reflect upon my career. I could not pinpoint significant events that drove a transition from one role to another. Nor could I identify a moment when I declared "I am going to be a leader". I did, however, flash back to the leaders, and supervisors who'd either thrown me into "opportunities to excel" with no guidance or direction, yet gave me the freedom to make mistakes and learn; or those who deliberately mentored, coached and encouraged me to balance performance with development and varied experiences.

I recalled my time as a computer programmer and my only goal was to produce code with no bugs or errors. Yeah, I eventually lead teams, but the focus was still on producing code. Then I remembered my eye opening move to the Air Combat Command staff to manage C2 software systems for airborne platforms. I quickly learned that I had to think through the larger impact of my decisions, how they impacted people and aircraft because there was now an operational mission at stake - no one told me what I'd gotten myself into! I definitely didn't stop to think, "ooh, I'm a leader now." Then, I thought of the first Colonel in the Pentagon who sat me down and said "here's how it works" and it was like a game of chess - each move thoughtful and deliberate. Somewhere in there I moved from being an employee with a list of assigned tasks to complete, to managing program resources and ultimately into the role of influencing people, shaping policy and focusing on results - a leader. What a ride!

We know that leadership roles are not always positional, but entail how we look at ourselves. Cottrell used a driver/passenger analogy for this. There is a difference in the responsibilities for each, much like there is for a leader and a follower. You see, passengers have the freedom to do things that a driver can't, or shouldn't, do. Passengers can sit back and take in the scenery as they ride along; Drivers should focus on the road. Passengers have the freedom to make cell phone calls, fiddle with the radio and read while riding; Drivers have to make a conscious effort to avoid distractions, must know where he/she is going and is ultimately responsible for getting himself and the passengers safely to their destination.

Each of us must make a conscious or, in some cases, unconscious decision to be driver or a passenger. You make the decision to be a leader when you become a driver. What does that mean? It means you are no longer one of the gang. There's no more discussion on what "they" are doing wrong. As a leader, you become "they". You lose the freedom to blame others for your mistakes. You become totally accountable for successes and failures of your project or organization. You lose the freedom to be selfish. You become responsible for other people's development, time and priorities. You are responsible for ensuring you have the right people on your team to accomplish your mission. You lose the freedom to turn the other way when you see wrong. You have a responsibility to know and hold to your standards and, in our case, the Air Force standards. You will find yourself making different kinds of decisions as you move from employee to manager to leader. I call it "thinking beyond your desk". You look much broader when making decisions. You consider the impact on the mission at large. When hiring, you think through whether or not a person is a good fit for your team. You walk through the secondary and tertiary effects of your decisions before you go forward. You think more about how you take care of others and focus less on yourself.

As for the book discussion, it was an insightful discussion for us. I think we better understood the value each of us brought to the mission. At the same time, we all had a driving lesson -- a refresher on the responsibility and accountability that goes along with leadership. The compact mirrors were to remind us who to blame if we took nothing away from the book. I bit, I looked and, as expected, I saw myself. Take a peak and tell me who you see in your mirror.

Are you a driver or a passenger? For you drivers, how would you rate your transition? There is nothing wrong with being a passenger, but you have to ask yourself, at least once, is that really where you want to be? If you decide otherwise, determine the best way to transition to the left side of the car and enjoy the adventure.

Happy Driving!