Pedal to the Metal — Or Stuck in Neutral?

Pedal to the Metal -- Or Stuck in Neutral?

By Patrick Lencioni

My mom and dad would have made excellent CEOs. At least, that’s how I reflect back on their leadership capabilities now (believe me, I wasn’t nerding out on their “leadership capabilities” when I was seven). They were excellent decision makers because they knew how to bring my two siblings and me along in any decision-making process, yet always made it very clear that it was their decision to make.

Take summer vacations, for example. If it had been up to us three kids, I’m pretty sure we would have ended up with a trip that involved buying a pony, riding it to Disneyland, then flying it to space camp. On the other hand, my parents could have just forced a decision on us, which I’m fairly certain would have involved us being shipped off to our grandparents for the entire summer. Instead, my parents actually listened to us, took our input into account, and made a decision to go to a beach that we all loved.

Many leaders struggle with finding this balance, and thus have the tendency to either drive too hard to a decision, or are afraid to drive at all. A client recently described the challenge within her organization like this:

“It feels like on one side we have leaders who will force themselves into the driver’s seat of the car, slam the gas pedal down as far as it can go, and get about 10 miles down the road before turning to realize no one actually got in the car with them.”

“But, just as bad…on the other side, we have leaders who will end up in the driver’s seat, pack everybody in, and once the car starts moving they forget that the steering wheel is in their hands.”

Clearly, if we’re all trying to get to the same destination together, these are both significant challenges.

Gas Pedal Leaders

The positive side that I’ve seen of the Gas Pedal Leader is the clarity of their position on any issue and their urgency in moving forward. However, leaders who drive too hard will end up losing their teams along the way. Without actually engaging their teams in a discussion, there’s a high likelihood they won’t get the best ideas on the table. At worst, members feel like their opinions and expertise don’t really matter to these Gas Pedal Leaders. This can erode the level of openness and vulnerability-based trust so much that team members decide it’s not worth speaking up even about important issues.

Stuck in Neutral Leaders

On the other side, the Stuck in Neutral Leader will likely prefer harmony and will strive to “get it right” by letting the team talk through a decision. However, on the down side, these leaders will often end up with a lack of crisp, clear decisions. Without a real sense of urgency, decisions get pushed out, windows of opportunity close, and meetings end up boring and with a lack of clarity. The ultimate frustration is the “deja vu meeting,” where team members will rehash the same discussion that happened last week. And the week before. And the week before that. The result is a lack of clear decisions and commitments leading to a lack of accountability.

If you suffer from either one of these challenges as a leader, here are some suggestions:

Watch the clock. Not literally of course. If you tend to drive too hard, allow more time than you would naturally. If you tend to be stuck in neutral, tighten up the conversation and create more urgency around the decision. In general, the amount of time spent working through a decision should be directly proportional to the weight of the decision itself. A decision about a new product launch should not take the same amount of time as what type of pizza to order for lunch.

Be clear about discussion vs. decision. All too often, team members will walk out of a meeting thinking a discussion is still open for debate, but the leader has already decided. Or vice versa. Most meetings should end with some sort of action, and great leaders will make it clear from the beginning what the team should be driving toward throughout the meeting.

Ask the room. Your people have good thoughts. You should listen to them. Before you make a decision, particularly a big decision, direct your attention to each team member and ask their opinion. Remember, in order to get true commitment from the full team, everyone’s opinion needs to be heard.

Ask your team for help. Your team likely knows better than you do if you’re a Gas Pedal or Stuck in Neutral Leader. If you want to be a better leader, ask for feedback regularly. Encourage your team to speak up when you’re either driving too hard, or not driving hard enough. Feedback can be one of the greatest gifts a team can give. I’ve found that the best leaders are those who can be vulnerable enough to invite that feedback regularly.

While no team is perfect at this, the leaders who are able to master the art of driving a discussion toward a decision while bringing their teams along for the ride will end up with better decisions and greater buy-in.