You Can’t Drive a Bus in the Ocean

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There are plenty of “leadership experts” out there offering advice on how to strengthen your leadership and ultimately your organization. They write books, develop trainings, record podcasts, post blogs… and yet, if these experts believe they have found the answer to all our woes, why does leadership still feel so hard? Maybe it’s because you are trying to drive a bus in the ocean.

Effective leadership requires one to use the right vehicle based on your current environment. For example, Lean Principles can be extremely effective if your goal is to increase efficiency and reduce waste in your processes. However, if your goal is to foster a culture of innovation and Blue Ocean Strategy, applying Lean Principles to the process — even if you do it very well — is not going to get you to your destination. One vehicle is designed to drive out waste, while the other succeeds by building reflective white space into an effort. Each can contribute to an organization’s success… depending on whether you are traveling a well-paved road or floating into the great unknown.

Some challenges call for transactional leadership — which deals with complexity, structure and stability. Others require transformational leadership — where the focus is innovation, strategy and change. A leader’s efforts will “sink” if he or she tries to apply a transactional solution (a bus) to a transformational challenge (an ocean). The reverse is also true. If your organization needs a leader to help it stay between the yellow lines, but you are focused on “catching the wind”, everyone will end up frustrated and discouraged.

The trick is to recognize what leadership vehicle you need to be steering at any given point in time. It’s not about one approach being better than the other. It’s about taking the time to step back, survey the landscape, and determine which makes the most sense given the current environment. If you’re focusing on structure when you need to be focusing on strategy, you may be working really hard and still feel like you’re not getting anywhere. For many people, focusing on structure may feel safer… after all, over the years you have gotten really good at driving a bus. Unfortunately, that is not going to do you a lot of good in the midst of a rising tide. Maybe you need to take a deep breath and consider changing vehicles.

You can’t drive a bus in the ocean.

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