Leadership and the Art of Car Racing

Last week I had some amazing conversations with leaders who have realized that to keep on top of their game… to have the impact that they want… they need to consistently hold the mirror up to their leadership. They know that leadership is a process, not a destination, and one that requires constant awareness, reflection, insight and change.

Now let’s be honest. Leaders often get to where they’re at because of a ruthless drive they have inside of them… a striving for excellence and success. And yet sometimes (okay, often!) this race to the top is often done with the elbows out and blinders on. The danger comes when leaders think that they’ve reached the top of their game because of this spirited, success-at-all-cost mentality, rather than realizing that success has likely come in spite of it.

In Marshall Goldsmith’s book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” he states that the higher a leader gets in the organization, the more their problems are behavioral. In other words, the distinguishing factor of leaders at the top is that they bring awareness to their own behavioral liabilities, AND they make a commitment to getting better. Goldsmith says, “as we advance in our careers, behavioral changes are often the only significant changes we can make.” So, all other things being equal, the lesser leader is unwilling to address their own inter- and intra-personal challenges, often with a mindset that they’ve already arrived at their leadership destination.

I’m not saying to diminish or erase that deep internal drive that many leaders have – in fact, I find that quality of leadership admirable and powerful. I am saying that to have more of an impact, to be more of a leader, we need to have greater awareness about the impact we’re having – not only on results but also on the people around us. Results happen through people.

I once told a client that it’s a bit like the difference between racing a drag race and being in a Formula 1 race. In a drag race, you have a straight stretch of road, the focal point of a finish line being right in front of you. It’s foot down and haul ass to the finish. In Formula 1 racing, you are on a twisting and turning track with a bunch of other cars. Sometimes you need the gas; sometimes you need to strategically brake. You are always attuned to where the other drivers are around you, and you rely on your pit crew to keep you and your car at the top of your game. (**Disclaimer: not being a car racer myself, this is my own, perhaps naïve, interpretation! Forgive me Michael Schumacher.)

So to up your skills as a leader, take the blinders off. It might be bright and overwhelming at first, but with the right mindset it can be full of learning and reward.

Here are some things to try this week:

  • Ask for feedback from a peer, a direct report, and a boss. Don’t settle for generalities – ask for details and specifics… stay curious.
  • Set your own leadership goals. What is the impact you want to have in your time as a leader? What’s your aspiration?
  • Have your antenna up. Look for evidence (even subtle signals) that you are having the impact you want. Adjust and make change if not.
  • Find a thinking partner – a coach, an impartial friend… someone who can hold the mirror up for you and tell you the truth about your impact — good, bad and ugly.

Next week, we’ll dive into the common behavioral pitfalls that trap leaders. In the meantime – let’s hear from you: what’s the biggest behavioral change you’ve made as a leader, and what impact did it have?

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4 thoughts on “Leadership and the Art of Car Racing

  1. The leadership behaviour that requires mindfulness for me is listening. I have been told that this is a strength, but during times of stress and ‘drag car’ racing with an overwhelming list of things to accomplish, I have to work harder at being in the moment with people, fully present as I listen to their ideas and needs. When I do, I not only find myself slowing down, but the dedication I give the speaker results in them feeling more empowered and more able to ‘race’ harder. In the end, we all move faster when I move slower.

    1. Yes! The act of listening and the art of hearing are very different, I think. I love the link between how you show up as a leader and how that impacts others’ ability to be in their zone too. Thanks Sheila!

  2. Agreed. It is hard to be present with others and pick up what is really going on, (including what they are not saying), when one is rushing from one thing to the next. One of the biggest adjustments to my behaviour over the years has been to include some “breathing time” between appointments and events. (Not a natural thing for a “P” in the Myers-Briggs). By, as you say, slowing down to be more mindful, I am better able to show up as I intend, rather than finding myself off-centre or unfocused. Then I am better able to listen, to listen deeply, to others. As a coach, one of my favourite questions to ask leaders is, “How do you want to be experienced [in this meeting, conversation, etc.]?” Too often, in the rushed pace of work life, people spend little time thinking about the “how” of interactions and end up missing full connection with others.

    1. Thanks Lynn! I know that off-centre feeling… for me it’s unproductive — the pace is quick, but it’s frantic energy (which is unproductive). I love this thread of thinking (with Sheila) that really listening takes slowing down.

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