Recently, we attended a Washington Nationals baseball game. 40,000 people in the stadium, most leaving at the same time. It was an oppressively hot and humid night — typical D.C. midsummer weather — and the home team lost so the crowd was not in a great mood.
We went back to the gated lot where our car was parked. There was only one exit, and we got in line along with the other cars. And we waited. And waited. And waited. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Not one car moved. Not an inch of forward progress. I’m not the most patient person in the world (major understatement) and so I was determined to find out what was going on. My assumption was that one of the parking lot attendants was directing traffic and not doing a particularly effective job of it.
To my surprise, when I walked the thirty or so car lengths that it took to get to the gate, no one was directing traffic. Hordes of pedestrians were streaming past the open gate, making it impossible for any car to move forward and enter traffic without running someone over. It appeared that there was no way out of the parking lot until the last pedestrian had left the stadium.
Instead of walking back to our car, explaining the situation and lamenting our fate, I realized I might have a solution. I stepped into the path of the pedestrians, put my hand up in the classic “stop” signal and began waving the cars forward. Understand that I am a 5-foot-4 woman — hardly an imposing specimen. At that moment, I honestly didn’t know if I’d be trampled by pedestrians who didn’t see me as “official” or if the cars would refuse to heed my direction and remain stuck.
Here’s what happened: The people stopped. The cars moved. The logjam was broken as I paused groups of people and then let them go before they had time to be annoyed. It worked. And not only were people cooperative, they were supportive. Two young guys walked by and gave me hug. Drivers lowered their windows to thank me. Some people asked, “Do you work here?” and were astonished to hear, “No, I work at an advertising agency.”
To be honest, I had a heck of a good time. Even a little power is a heady thing, and instant accomplishment is always gratifying. When my boyfriend finally drove up, I hopped in and we went on our way, laughing at the adventure.
As I thought about it later, I realized that this parking lot debacle-in-the-making demonstrated a lot of things we know but sometimes forget about being effective managers.
- We assume that someone else is in charge. There may be great people just waiting to be led, but we jump to the erroneous conclusion that some sort of hierarchy is in place and we become spectators rather than actors.
- We imagine rules where there are none. It’s human nature to expect that most situations fall into familiar patterns, and we wait for those to emerge. And wait. And wait. And wait.
- We underestimate our own competence and authority. “Who’s going to listen to or follow me?” we ask. Or, “What makes me think I’m in charge?”
- We don’t set achievable goals. Take it one step, one person, one milestone at a time and, before long, everything’s moving in the right direction.
- We fear trying something we’ve never done before. If you’re a reasonably experienced businessperson, chances are almost anything you do is similar to something you’ve done in the past. Apply your knowledge and go for it.
- We misjudge the capacity for cooperation. It’s amazing how much people want to help and be nice doing it. How willing they are to listen and act in the best interests of all if they’re given clear direction. Activating those instincts by offering a path to success is the essence of leadership.
The real bonus here is that this kind of success breeds more success. It gives you and everyone else confidence in your skills. And if you make it look like fun, there’s no telling where it can lead. Sure, you can wait in line and take your turn. But if you step up and make something happen, you might just get a hug, a high five, sincere thanks and the joy that comes from knowing that you’ve committed, gone for it, rallied people to your cause and made a difference.
Claudia Caplan is chief marketing officer of RP3 Agency in Bethesda, Md.