Driving School for Leaders

Posted 08.09.2010

Studentdriver This past Sunday afternoon, I took my teenage son out for a driving lesson. Brad is the second driver my wife and I have trained after teaching his older brother a few years ago. Like most things in life, it gets a little easier with practice  At least I wasn’t tensing up and freaking out as much  Probably has something to do with my reflex response being four years older.

Anyway, Brad and I were practicing in the empty parking lots of a large government office center  It’s a great place for driver training because the lots are connected by marked two lane roads with stop signs at intersections. We worked on hand position on the steering wheel, keeping the car smoothly within the lane, making good stops and stuff like that. Like a lot of new drivers, Brad is learning that you usually don’t have to make big moves on the steering wheel to get the car to go where you want it to go or to keep it where you want it to be.

As I was driving us home from the government center, I asked Brad to pay attention to where my hands were on the wheel as I banked through turns. I’m a big proponent of the 10 and 2 school of steering wheel management – meaning that your left hand should generally be at the 10 o’ clock position on the wheel and your right hand should be at 2 o’ clock. As we were driving, I started talking out loud about what I was doing to keep the car in the lane as the road curved. I told Brad that I realized that I was pulling the wheel with the hand that was in the direction I wanted the car to go rather than pushing the wheel in that direction with the opposite hand. That opposite hand was just along for the ride, so to speak.

OK, by now you’re saying, “Nice story about a dad and his son but what does this have to do with leadership?” Good question. Here’s the connection.

As I started talking through my steering technique or noting when I took my foot off the accelerator and started applying the brakes as we approached a red light, I realized that I was breaking down an activity in which I have become unconsciously competent. I’m not implying that I’m unconscious when I drive, it’s just that after driving for more than 35 years most of the things I do as a driver are now automatic. If everything is going smoothly on the road, I just kind of drive without thinking about it. It’s an example of what Abraham Maslow called unconscious competence and it’s the last of four stages of learning he based on different levels of competence. 

We start out as being unconsciously incompetent – we literally don’t know what we don’t know.  Then we move to conscious incompetence – we realize there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know that we need to know and that makes us uncomfortable. That’s pretty much where Brad is in his driver education right now although he’s doing a great job of managing his discomfort. Our goal is to get him to the next phase of learning  – conscious competence where he knows what he has to do to be a safe driver and actively thinks through the steps he needs to take to be one. Eventually (not too soon, I hope), he’ll reach the level of unconscious competence as a driver.

There are lots of things we do as leaders in which we are unconsciously competent. We do things without actively thinking about why or how we do them. We’ve been doing them so long that they’ve just become automatic. That has its pros and cons. On the plus side, it enables us to get more done.  If we had to stop and actively think through everything we do, we’d get a lot less done. On the minus side, it can reduce our capacity to ask, “Why am I doing it this way?” or “Should I even be doing this at all?”

Here’s a suggestion for you. Make a list that represents the 20% of the tasks or activities that you’ve been spending 80% of your time and attention on over the past month. Once you have the list, scan it and put a check beside anything in which you consider yourself to be unconsciously competent. In those checked items lies the gold.  In all likelihood, a successful outcome for your team no longer depends on your unconsciously expert level of competence. Your greatest value added is going to come in doing things that are going to stretch your comfort zone. One of the ways to create space for that is to let go of some of your unconsciously competent activities and give them to your team. Those new tasks will be their stretch. Everybody learns, everybody grows. That’s a good thing.

What are some unconsciously competent tasks that you need to let go of? What tasks do you need to pick up that might make you feel uncomfortable at first? Have fun and don’t forget to buckle up.