Leadership Lessons from Driving in the UK

Right-hand drive

Right-hand drive by EdwinMSarmiento

I was privileged to be invited as a speaker in the last SQLBits conference held in Nottingham, UK earlier this month. I have to admit that I was pretty excited since this will be my first time to be in the UK. I prepared all the necessary travel documents for the trip – visa, plane tickets, accommodation, etc. One idea that I have been considering was renting a car and driving. Whenever I travel to places in the US where public transport was a challenge, I try to rent a car. Now, understand this: I don’t like driving. One of the reasons I try to work from home most of the time is to avoid driving to and from work. I don’t want to worry about parking and other rowdy drivers that I have to deal with on the road. I prefer taking the public transport instead. The idea of driving in the UK should come as a surprise from somebody who doesn’t even like driving. But why did I even think about it in the first place?


I learned how to drive when I was 15 and I owe that to my brother. When you’re at that age, everyone thinks driving a car is cool. I’ve driven a manual transmission car ever since and only started driving automatic in 2009 after moving to Canada. The Philippines and Canada have a lot in common when it comes to driving cars: we drive on the right side of the road, we use kilometers instead of miles and traffic lights are the same (except when the lights are broken). Contrast that with the UK where they drive on the left side of the road, use miles instead of kilometers and a lot of roundabouts. And that’s the main reason I’ve decided to drive. You see, I like getting out of my comfort zone. I like pushing myself to know what I’m capable of. The idea of driving in the UK is my way of pushing myself to get out of my comfort zone. I have to temporarily forget some of the things that have become second nature for me when driving and “quickly learn on-the-job.” As a result, I’ve learned quite a few things about leadership, especially when embarking on challenging tasks.
  • Expect stress, so prepare for it. Doing something new always introduces stress, whether it’s as simple as cooking (especially if you don’t know how to cook, like me) or as complicated as performing your new role as CEO. It’s OK to feel stressed about it and that’s normal. However, if you let stress take over, you won’t be able to function well. That’s why preparation is key. Having spent more than 3 years in Singapore, I knew how it felt like riding (but not driving) on the left side of the road. I started imagining myself driving behind the wheel, being on the  left side of the road and feeling the shifting gear. The mental preparation paid off when I hopped in to the car and turned on the ignition. What I didn’t do was prepare physically. I should have slept well on my flight to the UK to get my body clock in-sync with the local time and not feel sleepy. Unfortunately, I’m still trying to figure that out even though I’m a frequent traveler.
  • It’s OK to start slow and make mistakes. Highly driven individuals always feel like they’re on an adrenalin rush. They want things done quickly, efficiently and correctly. So, don’t be surprised when your colleagues or boss can’t deal with inefficiency. They’ve become so used to doing their task efficiently that they expect you to do the same. But taking on new challenges requires a different mindset. You need to be patient with yourself because you’re in learning-mode. You will make mistakes and you will get frustrated. But the last thing you need to do is be hard on yourself. Rarely do we make it right the  first time. Remember the time you were learning how to write your name? How many sheets of paper did you end up tearing up? In my case, I felt like a new driver again. I stopped in the middle of the road a couple of times because I accidentally switched to the wrong gear while I make a turn. While I’m good with the clutch, my instinct just kicks in and try to reach for the switching gear with my right hand instead of the left and everything goes haywire. After getting back to my normal driving mode, I laughed at myself thinking like I was a kid riding a bike on training wheels.
  • Build on the things you already know. I actually used this point in my presentation about Windows Failover Clustering. One reason why most people don’t take on new challenges is because they feel overwhelmed with things that they know nothing about. I hear this a lot from people who get promoted on to a new management role – the technical support guy who is now appointed as the new team lead, the sales guy who just became the director of sales. What they don’t realize is they actually know a few things. They just need to build on them. The sales guy can sell the company vision and the tech support guy can use his analytical skills to fix a teamwork issue. Knowing that you know a few things builds confidence when tackling on a new challenge.
  • Observe, pay attention, learn and adjust accordingly. It’s easy to switch back to what we have gotten used to. But to be successful in facing a new challenge, flexibility is a must. Observe what others are doing. Pay attention to even the smallest details. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn. When I reached the freeway/highway/motorway, I wondered whether the speed was in kilometers or miles per hour. The on-dash GPS was telling me the distance in miles but the speedometer didn’t give me any hint. I kept glancing at the GPS because I knew how to correlate the speed and the distance travelled (yes, I was doing what I call the driver’s math of figuring out the speed just by using known values when the speedometer doesn’t give you any clue.) When I figured out that the speed was in miles, I realized that I wasn’t shifting gears properly. I knew how to shift gears in kilometers per hour but not miles per hour. Fortunately, the car I rented displayed a number that told me which gear I’m supposed to be on at a particular speed. But that number was very difficult to figure out because it was very small. I had to figure it out while driving by observing it while I change gears. That small detail helped improve my driving.
  • Understand what is at stake. It’s easy to give up when the challenge is overwhelming. I bet we can think of a thousand different (even valid) reasons for throwing in the towel.  But when we understand what is at stake, we instantly find reasons not to give up.  Is the future of your company dependent on you completing the task? Is your job on the line? I felt like giving up after several miles on the road because of the mistakes I made while driving.  I thought about finding the nearest branch of the rental car company and just return the car. But I realized that if I don’t focus on driving, I might end up in an accident. And I certainly wouldn’t like that to happen.
  • Seek out the right people. I thought I was the only one who tried to drive around in the UK with a different driving background. I talked to some of my friends who were there and realized that there were four of us. Suddenly, I no longer felt alone. We shared stories about how we felt and the different funny situations that we got ourselves into. And, we laughed. Facing new challenges isn’t such a bad idea after all if you know that others are in the same boat. Never face new challenges on your own and be sure that you are hanging out with the right people.
  • Celebrate small successes. After a few days, I’ve already gotten the hang of being on the right side of the car and on the left side of the road. I went from feeling like a student driver to a professional one. I knew how to switch lanes properly when approaching the roundabouts. With that in mind, I was now able to stop along the way, taking pictures and enjoyed the scene.  What started as a stressful attempt to drive in the UK has now turned into a pleasant experience. Every new challenge that we face will have its small victories. Know when to stop to celebrate them. Pat yourself on the back for taking the risk and facing the challenge. The small victories you celebrate today will be your stepping stones for your success tomorrow.

Are you facing a new challenge? Realize that it can either break you or it can make you a better leader.

Question: What new challenge are you facing today? How are you handling it? You can leave a comment below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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