The Team Driver Paradox

Imagine for a moment that you’re taking a ride on the subway, or, as we say here in Boston, the “T.” Somewhere up in that front car is a driver. That person sits in a little chamber and drives the train along the tracks. Someone not familiar with the T might assume that the driver isn’t doing much at all: after all, the trains are traveling through tunnels most of the time and along tracks all of the time. Yet, when an accident occurs due to a driver texting, it becomes painfully clear that the driver is doing a great deal. It just may not be obvious.

Driving a car is oddly similar to the train: When my children were very young, they didn’t understand just how much I was doing as the driver. They couldn’t understand why I couldn’t pick up a dropped toy or why I was tired after a long drive. Adults who don’t drive have more of an appreciation of the concentration involved than do children, but still tend to grossly under- or overestimate it. Indeed, if you were driving along a large, empty Midwestern highway, someone unfamiliar with driving might well assume that you were doing nothing at all, just sitting there as the car effortlessly zoomed down that long, straight road. The actions and almost constant adjustments you make are so small, so apparently insignificant, as to easily escape notice, unless, of course, you didn’t do them. Then everyone would notice!

In a very odd way, a successful team is much like that car, and the leader of the team much like the driver. In the best performing teams, it often appears that the leader isn’t doing much of anything. In fact, it often seems that the leader could be removed and the team would go on without a problem. That’s true, in the same way that the car would continue down the highway if you removed the driver and simply put a brick on the accelerator. If you decide to try that, please let me know so that I can be somewhere far away!

I have had CEOs, vice presidents, directors, and other executives and senior managers tell me that their company has leaderless teams. They even insist that their teams are performing at a very high level. Despite that, earnings are not where they could be, products are shipping late, and there is a very high degree of failure work. The teams, when looked at more closely by an outsider, turn out to be more along the lines of disorganized hordes. There is little sense of team spirit or community, rather each person is out for him or herself. Goals are vague, often to the point of uselessness. That’s OK, though, because everyone is operating on the basis that “there’s never time to do it right, but always time to do it over.” In one particularly egregious example, the following conversation occurred at product review meeting I attended:

Manager: “Is the feature complete?”

Engineer: “Yes.”

Manager: “Does it work?”

Engineer: “There are some bugs.”

Manager: “What’s wrong with it?”

Engineer: “The code’s not written.”

Luckily, I had already swallowed my coffee!

The most amazing part of the whole meeting is that no one seemed to find this particularly odd. It was simply seen as a normal part of how business was conducted. If that guy got fired, oh well, someone else would take his place. Without someone to lead, the team really never figured out which way to go and no one really cared.

That said, there are certainly times when it appears that a team is functioning just fine without a leader. You may even have been lucky enough to have seen such a team in action. Like the driver of the car, there’s a leader there. He or she just may not be obvious, until you take them away. That team and that leader did not start out working at that level. Rather, like any new driver, there were undoubtedly some bumps and wrong turns along the way. Even for experienced drivers, it can take a while to get used to a new car, to learn all of its idiosyncrasies and quirks. The apparently leaderless team is the product of a lot of hard work. It’s also not really leadless; it just appears that way.

Like the driver of the car, the apparently insignificant, or even invisible, adjustments made by that leader are working to keep the team from going too fast and burning out, from going off the road, or even from smashing into an unexpected obstacle. The results are only obvious when the leader is removed. By then, of course, it’s often too late.

If you truly think you have a leaderless team, look again. The leader may not be obvious, but he or she is there. And if you want to have a leaderless team, be patient. You can’t start that way and you won’t get there without some bumps along the road!

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. You can contact him at 978-298-5189 or [email protected].

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Richard Blanchard
Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.