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  • Writer's pictureAmara Lynch

Leading from the passenger seat

What words and images come to mind when you think of "leadership"?

If you google “leadership clipart” you’ll find all sorts of definitions for leadership. Someone leading others up a mountain. Someone who’s already reached the top of a mountain or podium reaching down to pull others up. Someone stepping up in front of a group and putting their hand in the air. Someone addressing a large crowd. In all of these, the leader is the one who is out in front. The one on whom the spotlight shines. But I’m going to share two stories that suggest a different picture of leadership.

The first comes from a wonderful book by Daniel Coyle called The Culture Code. Coyle describes an experiment conducted by an organizational psychologist who wanted to understand the impact of one “bad apple” teammate on the rest of the team. In the experiment, an actor named Nick joins a four person group tasked with creating a marketing plan for a start-up. Nick plays the role of the “bad apple”--either by being aggressive and defiant, slacking off, or taking on a depressive, Eeyore-like demeanor. No matter what kind of bad apple behavior Nick engages in, the results are the same. The group’s performance suffers a 30 to 40% reduction in quality. The experiment is repeated 40 times with similar results every time--except in one case. There’s one outlier group that responds completely differently. And the difference is because of one group member named Jonathan. When Nick would start to act like a jerk, Jonathan would use warmth--body language, a laugh, a smile--to defuse the tension. Then he would ask a question that got everyone else engaged in working towards the goal and listen intently to the answers people gave. The experimenter said this cycle repeated itself over and over. Despite Nick’s best efforts, the group gained energy and momentum, people eagerly shared ideas and responded to each other’s insights in ways that moved the team steadily towards its goal. Coyle concludes, “Jonathan succeeds without taking any of the actions we normally associate with a strong leader. He doesn’t take charge or tell anyone what to do. He doesn’t strategize, motivate, or lay out a vision. He doesn’t perform so much as create conditions for others to perform.”

The second story comes from my own recent experience participating in a Developmental Sprint with a consulting group called The Developmental Edge which is dedicated to rapidly accelerating employee, team and company growth. In the Developmental Sprint, each participant chooses an improvement goal. Then, using a tool called an Immunity to Change map and supported by a small group of peers, they uncover and pressure test internal barriers to change that they were previously unaware of and that are holding them back.

My improvement goal in this sprint was “To get better at putting myself in the 'driver’s seat' when needed and to feel comfortable and confident when doing so.” Over the course of the sprint I discovered that I was frequently choosing not to “take charge” or assert myself because of an underlying fear that if I did, I might be confronted with evidence that I am a failure. Writing this, it sounds hyperbolic, hysterical, irrational...but it also strikes a note of truth that makes my stomach turn and my heart race. So as irrational a fear as it may be, it is also real and getting in the way of me showing up as the person I aspire to be.

Uncovering my fear that I might be confronted with evidence that I’m a failure was powerful for me. Examining it in the light of day allowed me to dig into it, to try to see what was underneath it. Articulating my fear also allowed me to challenge it. I experimented with acting contrary to my normal instinct to step back and let someone else drive the car. I didn’t assert myself with the normal determination with which we try to develop new habits--”Dammit! I’m going to get better at this!” But with a gentle curiosity. I wonder what will happen if I do the thing I’m scared of?

At the end of the sprint, I felt proud of the progress I had made. I shared with the group that I now felt more comfortable taking charge, asserting myself, putting myself in the driver’s seat. Another member of the group offered affirmation, complimenting me on a powerful question I had asked during a coaching conversation earlier in the week. And then a third member of the group said something that’s been rattling around in my head ever since. “It sounds like,” she said, “there’s also something important about being in the passenger seat.”

You see, I generally don’t like being up in front telling everybody what to do. Being authoritative and assertive--that’s hard for me. It doesn’t come naturally. Do I want to get better at asserting myself? At being authoritative? Yes. But what I’m coming to believe is that asserting myself and being authoritative isn’t the only way to be a leader. Jonathan in the “bad apples” experiment leads by connecting with people, asking powerful questions, and authentically listening. Those are the things I want to be doing. That’s the type of leader I want to be. So while I’ll continue working on my backhand--asserting myself, taking charge. I will also recognize the leadership potential in my strengths and look for opportunities to lead from the passenger seat.


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