Front Seat, Back Seat

A few weeks ago I was in California on business, and my last evening there I visited the home of my high school friend Dori, now an English professor at a major university. Dori started telling her 12-year-old daughter about our adventures nearly forty years ago sharing a bicycle built for two. “It was so fun!” Dori said. “It was totally terrifying!” I added.

Our experience, you see, depended on where we sat.

Dori had the better sense of direction, so she usually sat in front. I provided a little more power, so I sat in the back. All well and good – a logical utilization of our talents. But you get a strange and unsettling sensation on a tandem bike if you’re sitting on the back seat.

Let’s say you’re going down a hill and there’s an unexpected parked car in the way. The person in the front steers calmly to the left. But for a split second, the person in the back (that was me back in 1974) feels as though he’s still headed for the collision, momentum continuing straight toward the disaster, until the bike pulls away from danger – seemingly at the last minute.

In my experience, this is an apt metaphor for leadership in a nonprofit organization. There’s one person at the front – the CEO – and everyone else on the staff rides in the back. The staff, the back-seat riders, see apparent collisions coming. Sometimes it’s not a major problem. Sometimes the danger is real, but they’re tugged to safety in time.

But sometimes – there’s a crash.

Unless there’s clear and continual communication from the person at the front, explaining what’s ahead, what the plan is, and how they are going to avoid calamity, the people in the back begin to fret about the problems and worry that the person in charge isn’t paying attention. They sometimes begin imagining problems that don’t exist. At the same time, others on the staff simply assume that everything’s going to be alright – “the boss always seems to pull things out at the last minute!” – and they grow passive, don’t sound the alarm, and fail to speak up to offer advice.

Crash.

This happens in the for-profit world as well, of course, and famously. Just look at Wall Street in recent years. (Anyone want to be Jamie Dimon dealing with the shareholders of JPMorgan Chase this week? Financial compensation aside, of course?)

The key for leaders is to communicate. What they say internally needs to be more candid and direct than what they say to external audiences — reassuring, certainly, but honest. Leaders should not react to challenges by trying to spin their staff. They need to talk about the problems. (People know when something’s wrong, so you might as well acknowledge it.) Discuss the long- and short-term plans. Solicit ideas for getting out of the jam. In short, let everyone feel in some way that they have the view from the front seat, and that, working together, they can steer away from disaster.

Above all, a spirit of candor from the front seat encourages those in the back to speak up when they see an obstruction ahead. And for nonprofits in 2012, there are obstructions aplenty. You need all hands, eyes, and voices working to keep you rolling forward safely.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

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