Foggy Mountain Breakdown

joe —  Sat 18-Feb-12 — 3 Comments
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Race CarsI was driving in to work one morning in a very dense fog. There were a handful of cars heading down a fast stretch of road. The speed limit said 55, but it would have been dangerous to do anything over 25. It was tough to see more than 10 feet.

I tried the same thing I always do in heavy fog – the high beams. Yes I know it makes it worse, but yet I still try it every time. It’s like watching a recorded football game expecting a different score at the end.

Back to the low beams.

I was getting annoyed with drivers riding my bumper, obviously thinking I was going too slow. Then I noticed a pattern develop. These cars would tailgate for a bit, pass me, and then slow down to the same speed we were originally going. I would appreciate this if we were on bikes – it’s called drafting. I doubt that was their intent.

RacingIt wasn’t until I came upon someone driving even slower that I realized what was going on. I couldn’t understand why they were driving so slowly, so I passed them. Then when I realized how foggy it was, I did the exact same thing – slowed down to our original speed.

When you are following a car in the fog, you get to see further. You get the benefit of your lights, which allows you to see them, and the benefit of their lights. You’ve basically doubled your visibility. If you can see twice as far, you think you can go faster.

Then you get out front and lose the benefit of their light. Back to 10 feet of visibility – better slow down.

Leadership is a lot like driving in a fog. The best leaders have to lead in very uncertain conditions. They choose a speed that balances a desire to get there quickly yet doesn’t endanger those following.

Go that wayThe difficulty is that many followers believe their leader should move at a different speed or direction. From the back it looks like 20 feet of visibility, but once they try to pass, they realize that there is now only 10 feet of visibility and need to slow down as well.

There is one thing in common with nearly every person I have mentored that became a manager. They developed a great appreciation for the challenges that their past leaders had encountered; it’s the same for us. How many times did we say, “I can’t believe Mom did that,” only to find ourselves doing the same thing when we became parents?

It’s the Fog Effect. With a good leader you get the benefit of seeing twice as far as you are because of the combination of your lights and theirs. Once you become the leader, it’s your lights only.

Until it dawns on you that when you become a leader, you are a brand new follower.

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  • Tim

    That was a useful insight.  Here’s a question drawn from current experience, and drawing on the same metaphor:  what do you do when your leader insists on going way, way faster than is safe under current conditions?

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      Great question, Tim.  Is it apparent to others as well? If so, then I think it would be wise to try to understand why he thinks that speed is necessary.

      Often it’s an irrational fear (like job security), ignorance (doesn’t know what he doesn’t know), ignorance plus arrogance (doesn’t know but he thinks he does), poor risk assessment skills, or he’s an adrenalin junkie. Each one requires a totally different response to help overcome the condition. The key would be for you to try and get an accurate read on what the root cause is.

      The problem with going too fast is that it’s like a NASCAR race to his superiors – it’s a blast to watch and brings in lots of money to the gate. Unfortunately you are the one strapped to the hood.

      • Tim

         Actually, it’s not my leader who wants to go too fast, it’s his leader and his leader’s leader.  And yes, it is very apparent to everyone involved.  Well, to those of use who are paying the price for it anyway.  My take on it is that one source of the problem is that the reward system is not just skewed, but is completely screwed up.  When upper management’s salary increases and bonuses are tied to meeting certain arbitrary dates regardless of how realistic those dates are, and without regard to significant unforeseen obstacles, it is an invitation to bad decisions.  It is 3:45 in the afternoon and we are on I-10 just east of New Orleans.  It has been a death march to get this far.  But we still have to deliver a certain item to L.A. by 6pm or “it’s the end of the world.”  (Actual quote.)  Needless to say, my team’s morale is the pits.