Leadership Lessons from Manual Transmission

Last Updated Mar 31, 2010 7:52 PM EDT

When traveling in Europe, you can't help noticing all the cultural differences between "the Continent" and home. But one that always strikes me is the prevalence of manual transmission in cars in Europe, compared to the virtual absence of it in the US. While there are many things the Europeans emulate about our ways, American business leaders might want to borrow an occasional page from the European playbook, and the stick shift is the perfect metaphor.

I've always had a preference for manual transmission. I used to think this was just the frustrated Mario Andretti in me. Sports cars are the last bastion of "manual" in America. Assuming that cars are generally made for those who buy them -- not necessarily a complimentary assumption, given the state of American cars until recently -- European drivers clearly have preferred the clutch.

What's this all about, and what can we learn from it? Driving standard gives the feeling of being more in control of the car and suggests wanting a more nuanced relationship between the car and the road. It's seeking an elemental, and at times exhilarating, experience of driving, rather than the more passive experience of being driven in hermetically sealed comfort. It's more work for the driver, which -- paradoxically -- makes it a lot more fun.

Those business leaders in the U.S. who feel they can run a business from a comfortable drivers seat, far from the maddening cobblestone roads and the vicissitudes of driving, assuming that their corporate engines will seamlessly shift gears for them, would do well to heed the lesson from European drivers: the best way to lead is with that fingertip touch. Alas, I've learned from some of my European friends that the popularity of standard transmission in Europe has been waning of late. But the idea -- and the pleasures of the stick -- remain unchanged.

  • Kerry Sulkowicz

    Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, advises CEOs, boards, and investors on psychological aspects of leadership in complex organizations. He helps companies with CEO succession, boardroom and senior team dynamics, human capital due diligence for investors, high-stakes hiring assessments, and the psychology of negotiation strategy. Kerry also advises large family-owned enterprises in the US and abroad. He is the founder and managing principal of the Boswell Group LLC, a consulting firm based in New York, and he has written columns on the psychology of business for BusinessWeek and Fast Company magazine. He is on the Faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute at NYU Medical Center and is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.