Ever get the feeling your boss is lost? That no matter how many management and leadership guides he reads he’s still leading the entire staff down the wrong road? I got a taste of this recently when I woke up to discover the Greyhound bus I was riding was lost somewhere in Queens, NY. At least, I think it was Queens; it was nearly midnight and all I could see from the window were highway exit ramps and concrete overpasses racing by under foggy yellow streetlights. Our bus driver had taken a wrong turn, guiding all 60 passengers blindly into the mess of freeways, bridges, toll roads and construction that rings New York City. And yeah, I was surprised. But the bigger surprise came when the driver gave up and pulled off the freeway onto a side street.
As the bus slowed to the curb, all 60 heads perked up. Outside the window, grass lawns and suburban homes stretched into the night. There was a brief awkward silence as the engine idled in the dark, then a woman’s voice called out from the seats. “I used to live around here,” she said. “Go straight and take a right at the second street to get back to the freeway.”
As the bus began moving, other voices joined in with suggestions. People who knew a street or a turn piped up. Others recognized familiar neighborhoods. Over the next half hour – from the margins of Queens to midtown Manhattan – dozens of passengers offered up their piece to the puzzle – right down to the smallest alleys and most arbitrary detours. Jokes flew back and forth as strangers chided each other’s suggestions and offered their own preferred routes (“Try Meeker! It’s much less crowded this time of night!”) Meanwhile, the driver – having been quick to admit when he was lost – never paused to second-guess the passengers. By the time we arrived in Times Square, the ice was broken and the cabin was buzzing with voices. A spontaneous ovation erupted as we pulled to a stop at the terminal.
It’s been a couple weeks, but I keep thinking of the rational behavior of the driver and the collective knowledge and instant camaraderie of the passengers on that bus. With a common goal and a flexible leader, 60 total strangers came together and cooperated as a team. From the start, the leader recognized when to listen – and kept a great attitude.
Teamwork, a common mission, a flexible leader who’s willing to listen, a sense of humor… all from a Greyhound lost in Queens. Yet it’s remarkable how many business environments are lacking these simple (organic) elements. Granted, leading a sales team or a marketing division is more complicated than orienting a bus in Queens. But judging by the volumes of frenzied business books and case studies on management and leadership that pile up on managers’ bedside tables, the best practices might not be as complicated as some would have us believe.