There’s no subway where I live, but I find it a handy way to get around when I’m in New York, Washington, D.C., or London. The novelty of it probably means I’m more likely than locals to notice certain things when I’m on board.
I was doing just that on a recent visit to the East Coast, anticipating my destination down the line and getting a little annoyed with all the stops and starts along the way. It would have been much more efficient if the subway could have just made an express trip to where I wanted to get off. But then it occurred to me that stopping and starting is kind of the point of a subway.
The same is true of buses, trains and even the hub-and-spoke airline system, which has made flying accessible to many more people than the more convenient (and expensive) point-to-point setup. When it comes to public transportation, stops and starts aren’t a bug, as they say, but a feature. Whatever form the means of transport takes, its pilot’s job is to make every stop with minimal disruption and sufficient care to prevent accidents.
That’s the metaphor I found myself using with a corporate leader who was complaining about how time-consuming it was to corral the various proclivities and perspectives of the members of her management team. She’s very good at it, which is one reason why she has risen to a position of leadership. But she’s also a visionary, which means what floats her boat is sailing as quickly and efficiently to where she wants to end up.
While she has my sympathy, that didn’t change the three words of admonition I gave her regarding her frustration with having to make so many stops and starts: “That’s your job.”
She’s not just moving cargo, after all, where the objective is to get stuff from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. Beyond unexpected travel conditions, when the task is to ship things, stops and starts can be limited to those which are strategic and predictable. But when you’re in charge of moving humans, the variables increase exponentially.
Pardon the pun, but you might say it’s the difference between shipping and leadershipping.
Yes, there’s destination at which you want to arrive. Yes, the sooner you can get there the better. But as a leader your task is, by definition, helping others get there as well. Which means you may have to stop and start repeatedly.
Some people on your team will be uncertain they want to go where you’re headed. Others will demonstrate that they need to go elsewhere. Some will get on board late. Some will feel nauseous along the way. Some will be faced with emergencies that need to be dealt with. Some will just want a break. And almost all of them will have opinions that differ from yours (and one another’s) about the best way to get where you’re all trying to go. Your job is to make all the necessary stops, annoying or not, with minimal disruption and sufficient care to prevent accidents.
There’s no express train to success in our modern economy. Consider just the past 25 years. Most companies were cruising in the mid-1990s, in part due to a dot-com bubble during which the NASDAQ rose 582% between 1995 and early 2000. Then the bubble — like all bubbles — burst, resulting in an estimated $5 trillion in investor losses (and a fair amount of chagrin for amateurs like me who thought we were masters of the market). Stop. Start.
Just as we were recovering from that, we had the events of 9/11, which caused business development to literally cease for (depending on your industry) weeks or months. Stop. Start.
We found a new normal and got back to business—until another, bigger bubble burst in late 2007, the effects of which lingered for the next decade via anemic economic growth. Stop. Start.
Then just as things began really moving again, so did a novel coronavirus and a lockdown that created unprecedented havoc in many industries. Stop. Start.
Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. It’s wearying just to recall it. Yet that’s the nature of economies, industries and companies — and during those larger economic cycles, each of our organizations had its own stops and starts due to its specific market and competitive conditions.
Those of us who lead have had to find a way to keep things moving through it all, including helping our people navigate their own personal stops and starts. We continue to. And we will need to continue to. That’s our job.
Leadership is never merely about driving toward a destination; that’s the fun part. It’s about ensuring all your key players arrive.
Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”