By Susan Ford Collins
How leadership is like driving a stick shift
As we drive, we use gears to move us ahead, slowly at first, then more rap- idly and easily. As we succeed in life,
we use gears too. Like skilled drivers, we must
shift up and down as circumstances require.
First Gear is for starting and restarting,
for becoming effective at anything new.
It’s accompanied by a long list of familiar
limiting keywords: always/never, can/can’t,
safe/dangerous, possible/impossible, right/
wrong, good/bad, should/shouldn’t, have to
Second Gear is for accelerating our productivity and honing our competitive edge,
for deleting unneeded First Gear rules and
developing shortcuts. Keywords here include
win/lose, produce/compete, longer hours/
higher stress, injury and even death.
Third Gear is for moving beyond the familiar and the previously productive into creativity and innovation. For imagining and intuiting, trusting hunches and embracing chance
events so we can make breakthroughs and
discoveries, invent new products, services,
Leadership has gears too
Each Success Gear has a corresponding
Leadership Gear designed to meet the needs of
individuals and teams operating in that gear.
First Gear Leaders provide startup rules
and limits. They also offer frequent praise
and acknowledgment to build our self-confidence and enthusiasm. They closely supervise our progress and quickly turn around
mistakes and setbacks.
Second Gear Leaders
describe what they want
and manage from a distance, providing regular
feedback and appraisals.
Even though they’re not
beside us all the time, they
are still in charge, managing
by numbers, charts, and graphs.
Third Gear Leaders are different. They are no longer in charge of
us. Their job is to support our
creative ideas, to help us
find experts and build
a powerful team, to
hold our dreams with
us, even when unexpected obstacles and
setbacks seem to wipe
them from our own
Who is responsible
for shifting our gears?
First Gear Leaders are responsible for determining when we’re ready to shift into Second.
They supervise, test, graduate, certify, and
license us. We learn early on to wait for their
permission to gear up.
Unlike the shift from First to Second, the
shift to Third Gear is one we must make
ourselves in our own time. We have to update enough old limits and build enough
experience and self-confidence to trust in
our creative ideas and our ability to explore
brand-new territory and lead others there
Today we spend most of
our time accelerating in
make, and most of our leaders
fail to make either.
Instead of leading
individuals and teams
“out of the box,” we
incent them to stay
inside. We dispro-
cheaper Second Gear
behaviors, and under-re-
ward the First Gear learning and
relearning we need to keep up.
Ask yourself these questions: Are your
company’s suggestion boxes overflowing
with ideas rarely implemented? What incentives are in place for Third Gear? What support system does your company have in place
for new ideas and approaches? SM
Susan Ford Collins is a speaker, trainer, and the
founder of The Technology of Success. She began her career
as a young researcher at the National Institutes of Health
with a radical idea: to focus her research on highly successful people (HSPs). With more than four decades studying
and working with HSPs, she now shares what she has
learned about leadership and management.
Gearing Up for Success