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Leadership Is the Antique Cars Ride

I remember growing up going to places like Canobie Lake Park in Salem, NH and Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH and you likely have similarly memories of going to other amusement parks as well, like Six Flags, or Disney. Nearly every one of these parks had one specific ride in common, and many still do today. The Antique Cars ride. Remember back to the excitement you’d feel as a young child when your mom or dad took you to the ride and you look, wide-eyed with pure joy at the old Model-A cars that you were about to get to DRIVE! No way! It was awesome. Every car was a different color, coasting at a dangerously rip-roaring pace of 3 mph on a paved pathway with a metal guide bar in between the tires along the track to keep the cars on the path and out of the surrounding man-made scenery. So fun. You were DRIVING! But of course, with a responsible adult, whose back and neck you probably broke a few times, because… yep, of course, the first thing you did? Grab the steering wheel and give it a hearty yank to the left and right bouncing violently off the metal center guide bar on the pavement!

But did you ever notice that the longer the ride went on, the fewer times you hit the bar in the middle? It’s really a pretty universal phenomenon that occurred during those rides. And interestingly it ties right back to some of the same principles you learned later in life while studying to be a good leader and truly understanding what good leadership was all about.

John Maxwell, a well-respected leadership training guru, said, “managers work with processes, leaders with people.[1]” You see, when your mom or dad or other responsible adult took you on that antique car ride, they weren’t really teaching you the process and skill of how to drive a car. After all, you were too young, and you couldn’t even reach the pedals and the steering wheel at the same time. Instead, they were (intentionally or on accident), training you on the best way to learn something new while having fun in the process. Why? Because there was a guide rail in place. They didn’t really care if you were a good driver. They didn’t need to. All they knew was you were having fun. You enjoyed yourself in a genuine way. And they knew there was no way that you could fail with disastrous consequences to you, the car, or them. There was always a safety rail in place. So, the more times you bumped hard on the middle rail, the more times you learned how to stay away from it. Meanwhile, while you worked hard to avoid the rough recourse of smashing the center rail, which as a child was really your only goal and the only thing you understood, you were actually learning how to keep the car in the middle of the road; an incredibly valuable lesson that you would need later in life when you learned the processes of how to drive a car. Staying in the middle? You had that down already. All you had to focus on now, was the laws and regulations… all the processes that govern the road.

Good leaders understand this concept very well, that the best use of their time is spent developing those in their charge and giving them the freedom and space to fail on their own, often times more than once so they can learn the consequences of failure; some of the most effective learning that can ever be done. However, the guide rail is the key! It is critical that the leader install the guide rails on the path to the outcome that ensure the failures are not catastrophic or “business-detrimental.” When there are safeguards in place that allow for safe failure, and the leader and their direct reports do not have the worry that their failure can destroy or set back the business enterprise, the employee will find their best work, their best growth, their best development, and most importantly, their greatest long-term success.

Processes are important. More critically, good processes are important and should never be overlooked, but the greatest return on investment in an employee, is spending time on their personal development, both inside and outside of the business.

This rings true, I believe in any industry or personal venture or realm.

But, to take this one step further, for those of you Christ-centered leaders out there, I note a quote from Boyd Bailey in his book, “Learning to Lead Like Jesus”. He states, “…Jesus was concerned about people over process, relationship over output, and transformation over transaction. And from beginning to end, Jesus was a servant.”

Traveling back to the antique car ride illustration, it is most important to note that the most rewarding and critical outcomes of an occasion like this ride, or any business scenario like it down the road, is the time spent between the novice driver and the responsible, trained driver/adult. It was quality time. It was fun. It was a safe place where the child could trust the adult (the employee can trust the experienced leader). The child knew that dad or mom would not let them fail in any real danger and adult knew the child was in no real danger. So, as thrilling and enjoyable as the experience was, the guide rail ensured the car was always moving the right direction, no matter the number of times the child bounced the car off the rigid metal rail. So, the focus could be on the fun and the experience, and the enjoyable time spent with the parent or guardian, all the while not realizing they were learning a valuable skill that would be very important later on down the line. It was the investment by the parent in the child that opened the pathway for effective, long-lasting learning.

This… is the way leadership is done.

Create the safeguards, install the proper processes, and then invest, invest, invest, in your people. Support them, encourage them, and give them space to fail. It will be the most fun, rewarding, and productively efficient time they have ever spent on the job.

[1] John C. Maxwell, The 360 Degree Leader: Developing Your Influence from Anywhere in the Organization

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