Driving the bus may not be the best way to lead a team

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins pens his memorable metaphor comparing leadership of an organisation to that of driving a bus.  He says that to move your company from good to great it’s about getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus and ensuring that the right people are in the right seats and the importance of putting “who” before “what”. Catchy, visual and incredibly popular by pretty much every leadership programme or book I’ve come across but recently I have begun to question the use of the bus metaphor. This may be the result of leaders who use it to justify swift or abrupt decision making or like to repeat it regularly because it sounds good and makes them feel enlightened. Or that the bus metaphor isolates and restricts the “who” to backseat drivers.

Jim says that many people mistakenly believe great leaders first set the vision and course of direction, instead he believes that great leaders start with “who” then decides “where” the company is going.  Though, I agree that people matter as they shape the culture, the bus metaphor does not favour people or culture. Instead the metaphor still puts the leader in the driving seat whilst everyone stagnates behind them. Therefore, the “right” people become passengers with little input in where the bus is going and little attention is needed to who sits where on the bus. This is because bus drivers drive the bus as they know where they are going. It is very rare that you would  be on a bus where the driver abdicates their position (unless you are in the film, Speed). Bus drivers are kings on their bus – they set rules and drive and we sit to read, gossip, sleep or stare aimlessly out the window watching the world go by.

Strong leaders lead and will set the course, however, the bus metaphor does not work for me; it feels too much like a dictatorship. This is not say direct leadership should be avoided but to highlight that in a dictatorship it’s not about “who” is on the team its only about the leader – the rest are mere puppets propping up a school or business. Though many great leaders may display a public dictatorship persona, in private they do have the right people in the right spots at the right time. Therefore, at different times in leadership other members of the team may have to take the lead in order for whole team to be successful and keep moving forward. This scenario would never happen on the bus.

I agree with Jim that “who” is important and tough decisions and challenges face any leader when building their team. Peter Drucker says it best that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, so the right team chosen by the leader is critical in achieving a healthy and successful organisation. I propose a rethink  of Jim’s metaphor (not his key principles) and a rebrand of his message which encapsulates the strength of a leader that actively engages the “who”. Therefore, I will suggest three alternatives to Jim’s bus metaphor that I feel may put more emphasis on the “who”.

The first suggestion is the Flying V performed by migrating geese escaping Canada’s cold winters to the warmer climate in the southern states of the United States.  The Flying V formation is more than aesthetics it’s a powerful efficient flying strategy to maximise synergy. A clear (instinctive) set of objectives are set and the right geese are in the right places. The formation itself reduces wind resistance to allow the team to travel faster and further expending significantly less energy than a goose flying alone. The leader at the front knows they are unable to lead from the font the entire journey because they are the first barrier in breaking up the air and so the leader will be replaced by other geese throughout the flight.  The direction is set and the leader still leads but as a team each goose takes a role and they work cohesively to achieve their goal of reaching the southern states.

A second alternative is the cycle teams competing in the Tour de France. Many people may consider the Tour de France an individual sport; however, it is a team sport in which teams of nine cyclists compete in a gruelling cycle race across France. For me, the Tour de France teams resemble a highly functional leadership team that Jim was envisioning. Each cyclist on the team is carefully selected to tactically win an aspect of the race – they bring a trusted value to make the overall team stronger. Their role may be to take charge and try to win the stage in their specialist skill area like mountain climbing. This allows their captain to sit behind in synergy to expel less energy to tackle their areas of strength. Therefore, the “who” becomes incredibly important in shaping the team, culture and ultimate strategy to fulfil their objectives.

A third possibility may be teams competing in Formula One racing. Yes, the main driver and his partner are competing for victory but any success on the track is a result of ensuring that each team have the right people in the right places. Formula One racing is more than a talented driver it’s about having first class engineers, computer scientists and mechanics.  Each one plays an important role to ensure that their driver has the best opportunities to win the race. For instance, the most visible display is in pit lane. Once a driver pulls in, a driver may have 15 or more pit crew working on the race car completing all their tasks in four seconds – all working towards the objective to win and to be great. The achievements of the driver are dependent on the success of the team on the track and in the garage. Therefore, the “who” is critical because without the right team there is no “what” because the driver is only a driver with a car to drive.

I am aware that my recommendations are not without fault; for instance in each case, one can conclude the leader is a glory hunter using other people to fill gaps in their ability. However, the captain or proclaimed winner embodies more than leadership of the individual but how a team of leaders openly working together can successfully fulfil a vision. I believe that I offer a set of metaphors that encompass the power of the team and highlight the importance of making sure the right people are in the right seats. Whereas, the bus metaphor does not capture the significant role of the “who” as they are merely passengers or ignored as back seat drivers. To get from good to great it’s about utilising the “who” and using their knowledge and skill set to achieve the vision of your school or business. Don’t pay lip service to their talents, trust them and use them.