This summer my family and I vacationed in England and Ireland. In London we got around town mainly by Tube and bus. For Ireland, we opted for a self-guided driving tour. Somehow I was elected chauffeur (looking at you, Amy Greene).
Driving on the other side of the car, on the other side of the road is not for the faint of heart. As we departed the Hertz facility we saw lots of rental cars in the “Return” lanes with mangled side mirrors dangling down the side of the car, or mirrors completely gone. We all looked at each other and gulped.
Full days of the normal treks that come with visiting another country are going to be somewhat tiring, that’s expected. For me, the driving part of visiting another country added whole new dimension to the definition of “exhaustion.” Turns out, I was unprepared for the higher level of mental focus and concentration that was required.
A new mantra
As we loaded ourselves in the car the next morning for the first full day’s adventures, I forced myself to be very intentional about the task ahead. I started the car, and before putting it in gear, I placed both hands on the wheel, sat up straighter in the seat, looked dead ahead, and very deliberately, I proclaimed my personal affirmation for the day: “Drive on the left.”
When I did this my family laughed at me. “Good one, Dad!” “Such a joker!” Then we proceeded to experience the most harrowing day of driving that any of us had ever seen in our lives. Our usual car banter quickly quieted and driving that day became literally a team effort. As we pulled into our destination at the end of that day, everyone finally exhaled and for a moment we all just sat there and somberly muttered, “Wow.”
For the rest of our driving vacation, my new morning ritual was regarded as sacrosanct. Nobody said a word when we got into the car until I pronounced my mantra. We put a ton of kilometers on the car, and we returned it to Hertz with nary a scratch (but with enough close calls to last a lifetime).
What this article is really about
Don’t worry – it isn’t about personal affirmations. It’s actually about what happened when we returned home to the U.S.
We took a taxi cab back to our house from the airport (no driving for me), and we spent that jet-lagged evening back in our familiar house. We slept in our familiar beds and woke up the next morning to our familiar routine. After breakfast I grabbed my keys, got in my car, pulled out of my driveway, and headed off to work.
It wasn’t until about 12 miles into my journey that day that I was completely gobsmacked. It hit me like a load of bricks that the last 15 minutes of stops, turns, and other navigational tasks had unfolded without my participation, it seemed! Profoundly automatically. No real conscious thinking on my part whatsoever. I suddenly realized that now that I was back on my home turf, in my routine, I hadn’t given a single intentional thought to the important task of driving two tons of metal down the road at 60 m.p.h.
Had I really just done that?!? After 8 days of being so focused and intentional about driving?!? I marveled for several moments at the power of routine and habit and intentionality.
Time to get uncomfortable
How does this play out in our practice of leadership? Sometimes we’re focused and intentional about new leadership behaviors, because the stakes are high and cause is noble — think, assuming a new role, setting a new direction and strategy for the organization, rolling out new products, or implementing a big new program (or not getting killed on the back roads of Ireland).
But there are other times. When are we on “automatic pilot” in our leadership, because we’re comfortable in our familiar environment? When do we forget to give this privilege of leading other humans a single intentional thought? And how are we showing up as a result, in those moments?
High-performing leaders do give it thought. They do it regularly and intentionally, and they have the results to show for it. Otherwise, things slip out of conscious thought and intention, into automatic pilot. People get taken for granted, overlooked, or ignored entirely. Projects get off track because they’re “too hard,” or “we’ve never done it that way before.” We start to accept the status quo. To counter this, successful leaders are intentional about not getting too comfortable, because they know what happens.
That’s our approach in my Vistage peer groups. We meet once a month as a safe and trusted council of true peers. Our focus is simple: to help one another expand perspectives, optimize decision making, and improve business performance. In other words, we’ll help you make getting uncomfortable comfortable. And when that becomes a habit in your practice of leadership, well… then you’re really onto something.