Leaders: Are You Driving from the Back Seat?

by  Wendy Appel  |  Self Leadership

Dusk was settling in fast as I drove along a winding road. Waves crashed on the rocky cliffs below. Why was I driving on the wrong side of the road? I couldn’t control my car and move into the correct lane. With my arms and legs outstretched from the back seat, I tried to grab ahold of the wheel and steer. My feet barely reached the pedals. Further on, I could see my destination, but had no confidence I would reach it in tact.

A lucid moment. What was I doing in the back seat? Poof. I woke up.

My dreams speak to me. When I wake up remembering my dream, there is something I need to learn. My subconscious has a way of reaching up through murky layers of my unconscious self, to grab my attention. The message is usually quite obvious if I don’t over-analyze and just take it at face value.

Now all of you armchair psychologists out there will have an interpretation of my dream. Stop. Let me share with you the message my subconscious whispered to me that night.

There are times and circumstances when I fail to take charge of my situation and I feel out of control, as if I have abdicated responsibility. People who know me would not guess this – for the most part. But I know. I find myself waiting for other people to change; for other people to follow-through on their commitments; for other people to make decisions so I can make mine.

I find myself waiting with arms outstretched to catch the ball/the handoff so that I can move things forward.

Why do I wait for others to hold up their end of the bargain so I can move forward? What stops me from cutting my losses and moving on or taking action on my own behalf? What am I doing in the back seat of my life?

Contrast this with clients, colleagues, people on my team and service providers, I see right along side of me as we pass the ball back and forth, all the while moving the ball down field towards the goal. It’s an amazing experience to have this kind of traction with clients and colleagues.

These are the kinds of relationships I need to put energy into and nurture. These are the folks that deserve my time, energy and attention.

After that dream, I realized I had to jump into that front seat and take more control of my destiny.

First, I had to understand my participation in this dynamic. Why did I allow this?

What beliefs did I hold about myself and others that needed some reexamination? Do any of these sound familiar?

  • I believe people should follow-up and follow-through on their commitments.
  • I don’t think I should have to babysit.
  • I don’t want to have to have the difficult conversations.
  • These are paid professionals, these are collaborators on projects, clients, colleagues … They shouldn’t need me to hold them accountable.
  • If I just give them one more chance …
  • I know they have (fill in the blank) going on, so I just need to be patient and understanding …
  • If I gently encourage …
  • If I wait just a little longer …

To call someone to account is tough. I am afraid I’ll come off pushy, critical, unfair, demanding …

I find that I don’t want to deal with excuses. I don’t want to deal with attacks. When people aren’t willing to look in the mirror—they tend to blame.

I don’t want to risk losing the relationship. I have already invested time and money and don’t want to start over (could mean I have to source and hire a new person and take a loss on the time and money I invested ).

Have you heard yourself say or think these things?

A wise person once told me, “Don’t throw good money after bad.”

My subconscious told me that it was time to get in the front seat and drive. What did that mean in practice? I had to hold myself to account and do some letting go.

I had to take some difficult conversations; truncate collaborative partnerships that took time and energy and did not produce the desired results; let go of some service providers and take a financial hit; end relationships that ate up time, energy, caused grief and didn’t add.

I had to climb into that drivers’ seat I had been avoiding and take action. I had to make tough decisions and steer myself to my destination rather than attaching my destiny to someone else’s wagon.

Thank you, subconscious for alerting me to a self-defeating pattern. One step at a time, I am developing patterns that better serve me and others.

Are you in the drivers’ seat of your life? Please share your experiences. We will all benefit.

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

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Articles By wendy-appel
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What People Are Saying

Becky  |  07 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Hi Wendy,

I love the way your descriptions bring your leadership lesson to life. Well done… very challenging.

Wendy Appel  |  07 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Thanks, Becky. Yes, it continues to be a challenge, but I am much more aware and making changes. You are one of the keepers! You are right at my side moving the ball down the field with me. What a blessing!

Glen Gaugh  |  08 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Thanks for this post, Wendy. The tie-in between the emotions and the bottom line throughout this post on taking the wheel made it reflective and instructive. I deeply benefited. Thanks again!

Wendy Appel  |  08 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Hi Glen, thanks for stopping by to comment. I so appreciate your feedback and am glad that you were able to benefit from my school of hard knocks :-)

Jon Mertz  |  08 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Great thoughts, Wendy. It is a balance between driving and coaching from the back. If we take the wheel all the time, then others will never drive. If we coach from the back too much, then they will just pullover. However, in any case, if our direction gets sidetracked, then we to assert our leadership to keep our life mission moving forward. Some good things to think through. Thanks! Jon

Wendy Appel  |  08 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Hi Jon,
I love how you expand on the “driving” metaphor. You are absolutely right. Best to know our own predispositions and what beliefs drive those predispositions.Then we can better discern when it’s more effective to coach from the back seat and be patient, and when it’s best to hop into the drivers seat.
Thanks so much for your comments, Jon!

Chery Gegelman  |  08 Oct 2012  |  Reply


Thank you for the great post! As Glen said, your thoughts started some deep reflection! Jon’s comments just added to what you started! Much to ponder…

The purpose of a great blog: Taking a topic deeper and wider! MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

Have a great night!


Wendy Appel  |  09 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Hi Chery,
Thank you … I am so delighted that my post gave pause for reflection. Sometimes our dreams are meant to be shared.
Hope you had sweet dreams :-)

Karin Hurt  |  09 Oct 2012  |  Reply

yikes.. I have had that same dream.

Wendy Appel  |  09 Oct 2012  |  Reply

I think there is something very universal about that dream. That’s why I chose to share it … something many of us can relate to. Yikes is right! :-)

Chery Gegelman  |  09 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Karin – I love your comment! …When I read Wendy’s post I thought of you – because you are clearly focused on a goal and in the drivers seat!

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