Updated: Feb 18, 2019
A wise mentor once taught me that every effective team needs three people: a gas pedal, a steering wheel, and a brake.
The gas pedal provides the needed energy to push the team into action. At optimal functioning, this is not an act of force or coercion. Instead, the gas pedal has a direct connection with, and brings access to, the fuel that makes any movement possible.
In an organization, the gas pedal translates vision into action; potential into kinetic energy.
The steering wheel excels at keeping an eye on the direction of things. This is more than just keeping the car on the road. The steering wheel ensures that we are all going where we think we are going and by the most efficient route.
The steering wheel channels and guides the momentum of things; ensuring that every expenditure of energy is purpose-driven and focused.
Finally, the brake operates as a check on the gas pedal and steering wheel. The brake is risk-conscious and situationally aware. The brake has the power to slow or shut things down in the face of danger and crisis.
The brake must be someone courageous enough to challenge the combined influence of the gas pedal and steering wheel, yet humble enough not to constantly grind things to a halt.
As in any tripartite dynamic, the interplay can be complex. However, when functioning at a high level these roles generate purposeful momentum that is strategic and responsive to external conditions and threats.
For instance, this is the balance that venture capital looks for in the leadership of a start-up. Investors don’t bet on one individual or idea alone. They bet on teams. This mix is what a would-be founder requires to make a fantastic dream a practical reality. The dance between these three roles is what is needed to turn an early and exciting burst of success into a mature and lasting business.
Surely, we perform each of these functions in different situations as circumstances demand. However, on any high-performing team you are likely to perform one of these roles more deliberately than the other two.
In the team you serve today, which one are you? Here’s some advice for each of you:
If you’re the gas pedal, the biggest temptation is to get together with the steering wheel and decide to discard the brake. When this happens, velocity increases as your natural check is removed. Unable to slow things down, the steering wheel tries to keep up; assuring you that no matter how fast you go, they can keep the rubber on the road. This inevitably ends with a wreck on the side of the road or running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere. When an organization has a fiery and apocalyptic ending, you can usually thank the gas pedal.
If you’re the steering wheel, your biggest temptation will be drawing everyone into a never-ending planning process. You will build intricate designs and multi-phased strategies for proverbial bridges to nowhere. The danger here is that organization, measurement, and strategizing become an end unto themselves. Each meeting spawns a rationale for more meetings that cover the entire organization in a web of bureaucracy that grows like an alien fungus. Everyone looks exceptionally busy, but nothing external really happens. An unregulated gas pedal risks catastrophic sudden death. A steering wheel run amok risks suspended animation; sitting at the light, revving the engine, scouring the map, and going nowhere.
If you’re the brake, your biggest temptation will be to demand the elimination of all risk and doubt before action is taken. If your cautious and care-taking impulses are left unchecked, you smother the team in concern, challenges, what-a-bouts, and warnings. This can kill creativity and sap the appetite for either initiative or planning. In other words, everyone is about to die, break things, or embarrass themselves and you are the only thing standing between the team and their plunge into the abyss. If not directly pulling the plug on projects, you’ll seek to slow-walk the initiative of the gas pedal, usually by enlisting the planning urges of the steering wheel to ensure the latest crazy idea dies in committee. The steering wheel is happy to oblige. Plus, the gas pedal likely has such a short attention span that they’ll probably forget which of the fourteen ideas they generated this week were never implemented.
However, when everyone accepts their strengths and weaknesses and develops the humility to defer and listen to their teammates, your team just might be able to perform like this…
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