Are you still a “bus driver” leader?

In 2001, the Jim Collins best seller Good to Great was published and was read and quoted by every CEO and executive who wanted to be taken seriously.

Collins is to be saluted for coming up with what was a profound book for its time. But, with unstoppable progress, some 16 years later, the thinking he put forward at the time has been overtaken by an ever evolving business environment that few might have imagined would have been possible.


In light of the dramatic and disruptive changes in the world and in the workplace, it’s time for business leaders to up their game and their thinking to embrace a whole new way of thinking.

One of the ideas that Collins put forward in his book was the idea that a company was like a bus and that the CEO was the driver of the bus. He further developed the metaphor with a statement that was also quoted by many a consultant and consulting company – the big ones included. That over quoted point was that you’ve got to get the right people on the bus (remember it?), referring to the talent that one hires.

At the time, that was one of those, “Why didn’t I think of that?” ideas, which was quoted left, right and centre. I make a big thing about this not to criticise the comment – in fact it’s still valid. It’s never been more important to get the right talent to work for you.

The reason I place such a focus on this is to highlight the fact that the “bus” metaphor Collins used, while valid at that time, is no longer valid. Here’s why …

Calling a company a bus made a couple of assumptions which we can no longer make. The metaphor worked nicely a decade and a half ago when companies were fairly static entities that employed people for a fair period of time. Sure they would get on and off the bus, but that was quite manageable. It also implied that there was a level of comfort on the bus – air conditioning, comfortable seating and a very obvious one – so obvious that few people have considered it. It assumed the bus drove on a tarred road!

Now let’s fast forward to the disruptive, uncertain world of today. So, all these buses have been driving along on the tarred road – a comfortable highway – with all their occupants happily seated, comfortable and relatively relaxed. If this were a movie, we would cut to a shot in one of the buses. Suddenly the bus comes to a halt. The occupants all stretch their necks to see what’s going on up front. They shout out to the driver (the CEO), asking what’s happened. Why has the bus stopped?

The driver (CEO) shouts back, “We’ve come to the end of the road. There’s no more road for us to drive on.”

And, after plenty of discussions, meetings, planning sessions and whatnot, everyone has to get off the bus and the CEO has to lead the now former occupants of the bus on foot across country through the bush towards their destination. No map. No compass. No GPS. And the CEO hasn’t got the faintest idea of how to navigate through unfamiliar territory on foot. After all, s/he’s a bus driver!

They never anticipated this. They didn’t sign up for this …

And so, while leading the former bus passengers through the undergrowth, the now-out-of-a-job bus driver has to reinvent himself from driver to tracker cum bush ranger cum scout. And this new role requires very, very different skills.

It requires being able to find one’s way through unfamiliar, often hostile territory, using one’s intuition, gut and instinct. In the mechanical, Newtonian, world where processes and step-by-step guides worked, ”bus driver” leaders were all the rage. Learning to drive a bus on a nice tarred road was a pretty easy task.

Now, in a completely unpredictable world with no roads and road maps, the step-by-step approach to leadership just doesn’t work. The question you have to ask yourself as a leader today is: am I prepared to walk away from leadership skills, techniques and methodologies that have helped me get to where I am and embrace unfamiliar and initially uncomfortable leadership skills, techniques and methodologies to help me get where I need to get to (and I don’t even know where that is)?

Only once you’ve crossed that bridge can you think of acquiring the new skills, techniques and methodologies. Oh, wait, there are no bridges either!

I can’t guarantee the future, but I can guarantee that, if you cling to your bus driving leadership style and resist launching out on a new leadership journey, you will regret it. And the problem with regret is that you experience regret only when it’s too late to do anything about it!

Alan Hosking is the publisher of HR Future magazine, www.hrfuture.net, @HRFuturemag, and assists executives to prevent, reverse and delay ageing, and achieve self-mastery.

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