Rules of the Road

car-1149997_1920On January 2nd, I got behind the wheel of a Kia minivan, fired up the ignition, and pulled out onto the wrong side of the road. Well, at least it felt wrong to me. I was in Perth Australia where, it being a former British colony, people drive on the left side of the road. As the driver, I sat on the right hand side of the vehicle; all of the van’s knobs and switches were located on the opposite side of what I was used to.

I’d been dreading this day for months. As part of my vacation in Australia, the plan was to rent a car and drive to the rural area where my great aunts live. For six days, I was to be the chauffeur for them and the rest of my family as we took in the sights and visited locations where my ancestors had settled. I was nervous, not just because driving under such conditions took me into uncharted territory, but because so many people were counting on me to get it right.

We often avoid things that make us uncomfortable, even when we know there’s great benefit in stepping out of our comfort zone. We’re wired that way; we seek out experiences that bring us comfort or pleasure, and actively avoid those that make us nervous or bring displeasure. Yet a key aspect of leadership is the willingness to embrace the unfamiliar in search of the beneficial. Whether it’s making that dreaded sales call, coaching an employee for the first time, or driving on the left side of the road, astute leaders use the same approach to conquering each new task.

First, they start with a plan. The last thing you want to do when driving a foreign vehicle in a foreign country with foreign rules of the road is to wing it. But guess what I did? My first test was simply to get from the rental agency back to the hotel so I could pick up the rest of the family. It was only a few blocks away, and I assumed I could find my way. Naturally, I took a wrong turn and wound up on a freeway headed out of town. It was only when I stopped and pulled out the GPS app on my phone did the correct path reveal itself. With the map laid out in front of me, I quickly got back on track. Have a clearly defined plan and follow it.

Secondly, smart leaders move slowly, especially when operating in uncharted territory. I did get this one right. Driving in such unfamiliar circumstances meant I had to focus on each and every small move I made. For instance, I had to remind myself which side of the vehicle to get into for several days before it became routine. Driving required an incredible amount of mental energy simply because it was all new. I was frustrated to be struggling with what should have been (at least in my mind) a basic activity. Yet by moving slowly, I was able to ensure I did things correctly and build up a habit of properly executed moves. Take your time and get it right.

Finally, make sure you ask for help. Leaders never succeed alone. I quickly learned that any time I got behind the wheel, I wanted someone in the passenger seat to help keep me on track. Having an extra pair of eyes to look for obstacles, identify landmarks, and point out next steps made a world of difference. The same goes for any new task you take on. Ask for help. Use the resources that are available to you.

I’m happy to report that my time behind the wheel didn’t result in any traffic accidents. By following a plan for each trip, taking it slow, and relying on others to help me, I successfully navigated my way all over Western Australia. I wouldn’t say I mastered every aspect (I kept reaching for the turn signal and activating the windshield wipers), but I was able to get the team from point A to point B. Where does your team need to go this year?