The Red Car Theory of Leadership

| | General Leadership
Pontiac Grand Am

Pontiac Grand Am

No I am not talking about the theory that red cars get more tickets or have more accidents. Although that is a theory, there actually seems to be little evidence to support it. Besides, the question of whether they do or not is not as interesting to me as why they might. Perhaps it is because of their color alone. Then again, maybe the hype about red cars made them more noticeable.

This phenomenon, however, leads us to an important question:

Why do we notice one thing and miss something else entirely?

When I graduated from college I bought a red Pontiac Grand Am. And from then on I noticed two things while driving around: (1) how many red cars were on the road, and (2) how many Grand Am’s there were of all colors. We notice things that we have some personal connection to, whether that connection is based on our experience, our desires, our knowledge, or something else.

Here’s why: because everything we have learned and experienced creates the context or lens through which we relate to the world.

It shapes what we pay attention to amidst the daily onslaught of signals and information. It even shapes what we are capable of seeing or observing.

Creating a Simple Context for Observing Leadership in Action

That is why I believe it is so important to create a context for leadership that enables you to see it in action. If our context for leading is limited to grand gestures like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech we will miss leadership in its simplest, most elemental form. If we want to be able to seize an opportunity to act as a leader in any given moment we must be able to perceive the moments of opportunities or they will pass by unnoticed like all the cars you drive by every day, but don’t really see. And if we cannot see leadership in the actions of others how will we be able to recognize it in ourselves?

The challenge here is to define leadership in action and in a way that it can be recognized by anyone. Because if you can recognize it you have access to doing it and to teaching others to lead as well. My equivalent of a “Red Car” for leadership is this: speaking up, stepping up and/or standing up for something you are committed to.

An Example…

Danny Brown posted an entry on Twitter on January 31st offering a free press release to the first 50 people donating $20 for his 12 for 12k fundraising challenge.

True, he happens to be the leader of this initiative. But the point is anyone could have done something similar – it was as simple as posting a 140 character “tweet”.

Your turn…

What acts of leadership have you observed? If none come to mind start looking for the “Red Car” and come back to tell us about what you observed. And please don’t worry about getting it right. We will all learn from looking at acts of leadership through your eyes.


Enter A Comment

Jay   |   03 February 2009   |   Reply

So many examples out there. I am going to go with Liz Strauss. She is a super blogger and business lady who hosts one of the biggest blogging conferences in the country (SOBCon) yet she talks to me like I am her best friend. She has a way of bringing you in to her life like you were always there. You are so comfortable with her that when she teaches you how to be better in every way, you do not even notice you are being taught. It is leadership at its best!

Liz Strauss   |   04 February 2009   |   Reply

Susan and Jay,
This is such a great cause. How could I not want to help it along? Social media offers all of us a chance to be part of something bigger than just one — to make a real difference.

What you said above is a perfect example of why I value you. I talk to people one at a time so that I can get to know them. If I didn’t do that, I’d never have had a chance to know what generous spirit you are. You make our friendship sound like it was all me. It’s us. Always has been.
Thank you, sincerely.

Henie   |   04 February 2009   |   Reply


I love your analogy of “red cars” to leadership!

Being relatively new to blogging and Twitter, it was my intent to seek out the “red car” from so many whizzing by…my red car is Seth Simonds…that he would take the time to lend his “time, talent and knowledge” as though one was the most significant person in the world is short of amazing!

I’ve been watching how Seth offers himself up to so many out there. He truly is one of the most caring people I have observed in that he genuinely shares his knowledge with others.

Thanks for a great post, Susan!

semazza   |   07 February 2009   |   Reply

@Jay and @Henie Thank you for sharing about someone who you see as a leader. Having also been following and have interacted with each of them I too see their leadership.

What stands out for me about Liz that she often teaches through her personal experiences. I’ve barely interacted with her but somehow I already sense that she is real. I think sometimes the most courageous thing a leader can do is to tell a story that shoes their humanity and vulnerability. Somehow I think that makes leadership seem that much more accessible to the rest of us because we have a tendency to put leaders on pedestals.

What stands out about Seth for me is that he asks great questions and makes sure you know he’s listening. Lot’s of people ask questions, but what stands out about his questions for me is that he provokes my thinking. So perhaps asking thought provoking questions could be an act of leadership. What do you think?

semazza   |   07 February 2009   |   Reply

@LizStrauss Thanks! The tools of social media make so much possible. I am learning much from pioneers like yourself and am struck by the generosity of so many in helping others to learn and fulfill on their dreams and visions. Leadership seems to flourish in the world of social media.

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