The Racing Line

In racing, there is a line that, if followed, is effectively the fastest route around a racecourse. If one were all alone on the track, this would be relatively easy (if you were a race car driver). However, during an F1 Grand Prix, there are nineteen other world class drivers on the course with you, and they all want to drive that perfect racing line too, and they want to pass you.

There is a racing line in business, too. The perfect path. The combination of effectiveness and efficiency that creates the maximum return on investment. Without competition, disruption, unexpected conditions, or breakdowns, we could easily follow the racing line and turn in impressive lap times.

However, on any given day, the best lap isn’t a result of every condition being perfect. It is the result of the driver carefully adjusting for the conditions and getting the most out of the car and the track as can be had in that moment. It is the result of communication, collaboration, and commitment.

Communication, collaboration, and commitment are at the core of leadership. In an F1 race, the difference between being first and not being on the podium is seconds. A single decision, slight maneuver, or strategy choice means the difference between winning and losing. The same is true for leadership.

One of the most dangerous points on a racecourse is a turn. Changing direction creates forces that want to throw the car off the track. Anyone can go fast in a straight line. It takes skill to maintain as much speed as possible while going around a turn. Where to enter the turn, how early to brake, how to manage speed in the corner, and then where to exit can either extend a driver’s lead, allow for a pass, or cause a crash.

Change creates both opportunity and risk. The mistake many leaders make is in thinking they are deciding whether to change or not. That would be a little like a race driver claiming they were deciding where the turns were. The turns are where they are. Change is where and when it is. What leaders must do is guide the team through the corners effectively and efficiently without losing a place or crashing.

Leaders communicate both the “what” and the “why.”

During a Grand Prix, each driver is in constant contact with their engineer and, through them, the entire race team. Communication allows the driver and the race team to adjust their strategy throughout the race to adapt to the changing conditions and the moves the competition is making.

Great leaders give their teams the information they need to navigate the corner as efficiently as possible. Helping people understand why they are turning can be as important as knowing where they are turning. The leader may know where the track is headed, but the team knows how the car is handling and needs to be capable of adjusting while staying true to the course.

Leaders get people to collaborate.

An F1 team has two drivers, but there are about 75 people supporting those drivers. The whole team is focused on the strategy and plan for the race. Every person has to understand their role but also needs to know how their performance impacts the rest of the team. The race can be lost by the pit crew, the engineers, or the mechanics—really anyone—not just the driver.

Great leaders foster collaboration by being collaborative. Collaboration takes work. It is often easy to fall into the trap of thinking it would be more efficient to just do it yourself. Sometimes, leaders worry that if they ask for advice, opinions, or help creating a solution, it will undermine the team’s confidence in their leadership. Exactly the opposite is true.

Leaders commit.

When an F1 car is approaching a turn, the brakes must be applied to slow the car so it can make the turn. Being willing to commit to the turn and brake a little later than the next driver can win a race. This commitment isn’t born of reckless abandon; it is created from knowing the car and the course intimately.

Great leaders have to know their team, their organization, and their industry intimately. The ability to be decisive (to commit) comes from confidence, which comes with familiarity. We may not know everything that is around the corner, but we must know how fast our car will turn under the conditions we are racing and commit to the turn with everything we have.

The closer we can follow the racing line—the most effective and efficient line—the better our results will be. Healthy organizations embrace the turns as part of the course and healthy leaders communicate, collaborate, and commit (themselves as well as their team) to change. Change isn’t the enemy or the competition; it is the opportunity to take the lead and win the Bison Way.