You can learn a lot from a road trip. Maybe it’s a geology lesson about how the landscape around you was formed or a history lesson from a gold mining town, or maybe even some skills you hadn’t considered before. Leadership lessons can come from tons of places, but lots of people agree that road trips can actually teach you a lot about yourself and how to lead a team.
To find out how a road trip can actually become a lesson in leadership we asked 26 experts (including travel bloggers and business professionals) about their own experiences on the road and how they’ve learned to become better leaders. So read on to find out what your time on the road might have taught you.
1. Have a Goal (Choose a Destination)
It may seem obvious, but before you even set out on the road, you have to decide where you’re going to end up. Whether you’re chasing that waterfall, heading home on your summer break, or seeking out the perfect ice cream shop, your trip begins by figuring out where it’s going to end. You take the first step in planning by choosing a destination and then filling in the rest of your plan around that.
Your destination is the end goal, and in choosing it you set the trajectory of your trip. As Rochelle Burnside of BestCompany reminded us, “it’s easy to sit shotgun and let someone take you to your destination…[but] your rite of passage is to complete your own trip.” Choosing the destination for yourself takes initiative, and when you pick your destination, you’re setting your end goals.
As Vanessa Keating of Evolve Creative tells us, “Leaders usually start off with an end goal then focus on a plan to get you there in the most efficient and stress-free way possible. You then gather a team with skills and availability needed for the needs of the project you are leading.”
As a leader, knowing the big picture and having a clear destination allows you to better measure your progress, stay motivated and focus on your end goal. Living in this technologically driven time, we’re usually able to see how many miles and how long it takes to get to a destination. However, it’s rarely the case that you arrive at your destination in exactly the estimated time. They never account for gas stops!
2. Have a Plan (Map Your Route)
Once you’ve decided on a goal, make a plan: where you’ll go, how long it will take, where you’ll stop, and even how you’ll get there. Planning allows you to create focus, reduce risks and improve decision making.
Marianne Perez de Fransius, the co-founder of Bebe Voyage, was planning a road trip with her family, albeit a bit more adventurous than most people’s standard road trip. In preparation for a road trip across Africa with their one-year-old, Marianne “learned what gear and tools we should have in our car, how to change a tire, how to understand a few basics of what goes on under the hood, how to drive in sand, etc.” Luckily, they didn’t have any major issues, but because of their planning, they knew when they were pushing the boundaries off-road. “While it might sound kind of crazy to do a road trip across southern Africa with a one-year-old, as parents we’re actually pretty risk-averse, so things that might seem risky were actually well researched and well prepared for ahead of time.”
A solid plan for a road trip helps you to allocate your resources and figure out how far you can reasonably drive in a day, minimize risks by preparing for what to do in the case of a break-down and set goals and expectations by deciding on where you want to stop. These same principles apply in a leadership context too, where you set goals for you and your team to achieve and measure performance, reduce risks by taking potential obstacles into account, and allocate your resources such as your team’s time and money on a project.
However, no matter how well you plan there can be external factors that catch you off guard. Planning ahead can help a lot, but being able to handle the unexpected is crucial in travel and leadership.
3. Adapt to Breakdowns
Unexpected events are inevitable on a road trip. Traffic, bad weather, closed roads, flat tires, breakdowns and even accidents can happen at the worst possible times, and they’re usually totally out of your control. These situations can easily feel like a crisis, but strong leaders have learned to handle them calmly and efficiently.
Crises can be categorized into two types: routine and novel. Routine crises are situations that you can plan for, such as a flat tire, whereas novel situations are basically random, like traffic or a rogue snowstorm. Having an empathetic, decisive, adaptable and clearly communicated reaction to these events is key to strong leadership.
As James Cave of the Portugalist travel blog told us, “travel rarely goes according to plan, and a big part of the art of travel is learning to keep a level head when those plans fall apart, work out what your options are, and decide what the best course of action is.”
Personal finance and travel blogger, Marco Baatjes, recalls driving through the rain during a road trip; “an SUV took an upcoming turn at a higher speed than normal, as a result, the vehicle had swerved and rolled on its roof into a ditch.” Even though you may have planned and been cautious of road conditions, we share the road with other people who can be less responsible. When things go wrong, being a fast-acting and adaptable leader can be crucial. “I pulled over and instructed my partner to call an ambulance while I ran over to the vehicle to check on the driver and passengers. I learned how to coordinate and manage people in high-pressure situations, which has helped a lot with my career,” says Marco.
On a road trip or in a leadership situation, how you react to high-stress situations can reveal a lot about your patience.
4. Know When to Go With the Flow (Set Cruise Control)
When plans do fall apart, sometimes the best course of action is to wait it out and be patient. A major part of road trips is the spontaneity and the hours of driving through what often feels like nowhere. These moments require a level of patience that can be cultivated into a valuable leadership trait.
Somewhere along the route, you’ll likely pass a roadside attraction that you hadn’t planned for, but your co-pilot or other passengers may want to check out. Being patient and allotting time to see these things make road trips fun in the first place. “The preciseness of a typical day is gone,” says Shawn McBride of McBride for Business, and “you learn to think differently.” Road trips teach us how to relinquish some control and take things as they come, like setting the cruise control and letting the scenery roll by.
Patience sometimes requires that you take a deep breath and let go of your sense of urgency and embrace the process. Melissa Drake of Collaborative AF practices her patience while she’s traveling: “When you take the road as it comes, it rises up to meet you, instead of constantly trying to chase it, catch it or anticipate the next step.”
Sometimes when you’ve been driving for a really long time, switching drivers and taking a backseat or setting the cruise control can be in your best interest. This idea holds true in the context of leadership as well, “Leaders know when to push and plan as well as when to surrender and be open to the flow of the process,” says Vanessa Keating of Evolve Creative.
When you have patience, you have new freedom to stop in places you hadn’t originally planned for and meet new and interesting people. While you may not have planned to spend time in some of the smaller towns you pass through on your trip, you might find that having the patience to do so can open you up to recommendations from the people that live there that might open you up to new adventures.
5. Be Inclusive and Engaging (Embrace the Locals)
In order to get the most out of your road trip, you need to immerse yourself in the different styles and cultures of the places you visit. A lot of the time, asking locals for tips on nearby attractions and food recommendations is more rewarding than deferring to Yelp.
Being open to cultural differences exposes you to new ways of thinking and inviting this mindset can make you more creative and productive. Leaders who embrace cultural diversity increase their team’s engagement, decrease turnover and can even make a higher profit.
“When you travel on the road, you cross many different cities and states and meet just as many people,” says Chhavi Agarwal, personal finance blogger at Mrs. Daaku Studio. “They are from different cultures, backgrounds and you are bound to face differences of opinion and understanding.”
Embracing cultural differences can open you up to new viewpoints and allow you to see things through a different lens. “Keep an open mind, ask questions, understand and stop assuming things that come naturally to us,” says Chhavi. Opening yourself up to the viewpoints of other cultures gives leaders a new perspective that allows them to communicate with people of all different backgrounds.
6. Communicate Clearly (Chat With Your Passengers)
Hitting the road with your friends or partner can be one of the best ways to make lasting memories. When you’re all in the car together you have time to really open up and have great conversations. Being able to communicate clearly can make trip plans less stressful and set expectations early for extra stops. Even if you’re close with whoever you’re traveling with, conflicts can happen.
Biren Bandara of Leader School says, “Being stuck in a car with someone, no matter how well you get along, is still trying and sometimes stressful. Now add on distance and time constraint and the road trip can turn south quickly.” Take bathroom stops, for example. If your stops aren’t clearly communicated with whoever you’re traveling with, then you might stop more often than originally planned, which can be annoying.
Communication in leadership is very similar. Interpersonal communication is so common in a leader’s typical day and many organizational issues can be the result of bad communication. Road trips with your friends or partners are a good way to hone your communication skills.
7. Balance Self-Reliance and Teamwork (Share the Driving)
Just like the driver steers the car, leaders help steer the company where it needs to go, and they use their team to get there. Only one person can drive at a time, but everyone in the car has a responsibility — whether that’s helping to keep the driver awake and focused on the road, assisting with navigation or even playing tunes as the DJ.
Using your team well, both in the car and as a leader, can lift a lot of the weight off your shoulders. “I feel far less responsibility for everyone. When everyone contributes to the journey, everyone is part of it and feels seen, heard and understood,” says Kathy Taberner, an executive coach at the Institute of Curiosity. “They feel as if they are contributing to our adventure and are valued.”
Sharing the responsibility of a road trip means that your passengers are also contributing, which means that everyone’s goals and expectations are aligned. In a team, people work together to amplify each other’s strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Teams can also be there to help support you when you make a mistake, so it’s often a good idea to leave your ego at home when you hit the road.
8. Make Mistakes (Wrong Turns Happen)
Everyone makes mistakes, but how you react to them and learn from them can really say a lot about your leadership skills. If you make a wrong turn or run out of gas on the road, learning to pay more attention to the map or the gas gauge can help you avoid those issues again in the future.
Co-founder of CampAddict.com Kelly Beasley told us about her road trip from Seattle to Kalispell when they hit a snowstorm on a mountain pass. “Chains were required. I didn’t listen when I was questioned by my road trip partner if my truck had rear-wheel drive. I believed that it had front-wheel drive, and so we proceeded to put the snow chains on my front tires. Alas, we got stuck going uphill on that pass! I should have listened, but didn’t. Changing snow chains in raging snow and in the middle of traffic is not fun!”
Luckily, Kelly learned from this mistake and, while on another trip, her friends gave her some advice: “…someone in my off-road group told me to put my truck in the lowest gear. We were headed downhill on a steep mountain road. It helped save my brakes.” Listening to your teammates and learning from your past mistakes pays off.
Summer road trip season is now in full swing, and plenty of people will be heading out onto the road in search of a new adventure, Instagram-able photo opportunity, or just heading home for break. Next time you’re on a road trip, be it in your own car or an SUV rental for the crew, think about how you can strengthen your planning, communication, crisis management and more.
When you’re in the driver’s seat, you learn how to set specific goals, stick to them, and lead and motivate other people around them. Whether you’re just taking a road trip or leading a company, a trip can teach you a lot about leading and about yourself. Leadership skills can be learned just about anywhere, as long as you’re paying attention, so get out on the road and learn something.
All quotes used in this article were given to us by their authors through a HARO query posted on behalf of CarRentals.