Backseat driver or best coach ever? Featured

11:12am EDT October 10, 2005

Remember when you were 16 and your dad let you get behind the wheel of his car? At first, he rode with you to see how you would handle yourself under the pressure of the open road.

Once the car was moving into harm’s way, his leadership and mentoring skills came to the proverbial fork in the road, and the actions he took defined how he was remembered in the memory of his starry-eyed student. Was he a backseat driver or the best coach ever?

Lessons from the best coach ever
Things experienced are lessons learned forever.

Most of us learn by doing. We make the simple mistakes that many others have made, but once we’ve made that mistake ourselves, we don’t do it again.

The best coach ever lets his or her pupils make some mistakes but ensures that they don’t make a fatal mistake. Coaches guide and encourage and, of course, critique, and their experience is ever-present but not overbearing.

Driving down the road, your dad may have been squeezing his knee so hard the circulation to his feet was temporarily cut off. But he did his best to keep his commentary to the minimum needed to ensure a safe arrival at your destination. After all, that was the goal; get from point A to point B safely.

In business and in life, the way to learn something is to just do it. When the opportunity arises to give someone a leadership role in your organization, even in a temporary capacity, it is important to remember your goal, and their goal, is to get from point A to point B. If they are moving the project toward the goal, then the interference from you should be minimal. You are giving them a valuable gift — experience.

Lessons from the backseat driver
Lessons not learned must be relearned.

Once on the way down the road, some of us had dads who pointed things out well before they were a factor and gave detailed instructions on every phase of vehicle operation. Those dads are the backseat drivers of the world. No one, not even their own progeny, could live up to their standard of perfection.

People make mistakes. Backseat drivers don’t understand that it is important for true leaders to create opportunities and monitor progress in an environment that fosters learning, one that allows minor mistakes to happen. You will not foster a culture of leadership if you continuously give detailed instructions on every phase of project execution and point things out well before the project leader has a chance to discover and experience it.

It is your duty to make sure that once you place someone in a position of authority that is appropriate for their level of experience, they have enough autonomy to both accomplish the task and learn from it.

The lesson that a student isn’t allowed to learn by doing will eventually be learned when there is much more at risk.

Backseat drivers never need to insist on driving. Whenever they get near the car, the keys will always be delivered to their palms — not because their driving skill and expertise far surpass those of the other passengers but simply because no one can take the continuous stream of instructions that will inevitably ensue. No one wants to be bothered — so they just let the backseat driver have the wheel.

In your organization, are your people asking for the keys to the car? If not, why not? Are you a backseat driver or the best coach ever?

Kirk Gilpin is president of Smartalk Communications Inc., a provider of business communications solutions. He is also a vice president of Fighter Associates LLC (, a provider of leadership training and consulting services. Reach him at