Lessons from the Road

Over the past sixty days, I’ve had the opportunity to drive over 4000 miles in Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the U.S.  I’m writing this message from near Berlin, having just spent the past few days navigating Germany’s famous Autobahn.

The Autobahn is famous because it generally has no speed limits.  Cars are known to travel as fast as 200 miles per hour.  That can be a bit disconcerting to someone from the U.S., where most highways are limited to 65mph.  As I was driving today at an average of 90 mph, feeling like I was really moving along, I had cars flying by me.  As I thought of how and why the Autobahn exists, it occurred to me that there are some leadership lessons to be learned from the Germans.

In the U.S., our speed is “managed” by a combination of signage, threats, heavy fines and police patrols.  Indeed, on a recent weekend trip, I counted over 15 police cars on a 100 mile stretch of the Massachusetts Turnpike.  These public servants patrol our highways to ensure that no one goes more than about 10 miles over the posted limit.  Performance is measured by the number of tickets they issue.  In the U.S., we “manage” vehicular speed through the application of consequences.

The average policeman’s salary in the U.S. is about $50,000 per year.  If we take the cost of their vehicle, their care and feeding and the cost of administration, it’s very easy to arrive at a conservative cost of $100,000 per year per officer.  Using my Mass Pike experience as an example, if we assume that there’s a patrolman for every 10 miles of highway, then it’s reasonably safe to calculate that it takes about 40 patrolman to cover the Mass Pike (140 miles/10 = 14 patrolman x 3 shifts = 42 officers).  Based on my simple math, that’s a $4 million annual investment (and it’s likely twice that).  This investment is specifically directed at “managing” outcomes.

In Australia, I drove over 500 miles and saw very few police officers.  But we did see many, many signs warning us that our speed was being monitored and we were being photographed.  That had us a bit paranoid.  As a result, we watched our speed carefully.  As in the U.S., the Aussies “manage” compliance using the power of consequence.

By contrast, on the Autobahn, I saw but one police car over my 300 miles of driving.  Just one!  And it appeared that he was simply helping someone with a stranded vehicle.  Removing speed limits certainly seems to reduce the need for police officers.

Cars on the Autobahn drive wicked fast.  And what’s equally as amazing is that the Autobahn is relatively safe. The fatality rate is actually much lower than that observed on the US interstate system.  For every 100,000 people under the age of 24, in the US nearly 20 die in auto accidents compared to only about 7 in Germany.  Even so, one would assume that the “dangerous” autobahn accounted for most German accidents. Not true!  In 2009 accidents on the autobahn accounted for less than 10% of all traffic fatalities in Germany.

So what’s going on here?  No speed limit.  No police.  Fewer accidents!

My observation is that the fundamental difference between the U.S., Australia and Germany is that in the first two, they use laws, consequences and enforcement to “manage” the actions of the populace.  If you step out of line, if you don’t follow our rules, there will be consequences.  And we’re going to watch you so that you don’t step across that line. It’s that simple.  In the U.S. and Australia this amounts to a “quality control system” that’s intended to “manage” speed.  One might conclude that it’s the management of speed that’s the objective and not safe and efficient travel.  Clearly the Germans have proven that the former doesn’t ensure the latter.

In Germany, things are clearly different.  The Germans don’t focus on “managing” to their desired outcome (safe and efficient travel).  They do rely upon consequences but get there by leading to their desired outcome.  For the Germans, it’s not about management, but leadership.


First, in Germany it is illegal to pass a car on the right side. This helps to ensure that the left lane is clear for those cars traveling at high speeds. In the United States, the same is true in concept as the left lane is regarded as the passing lane.  However, there is no law which enforces this practice.  And, certainly, we’ve all experienced that this bit of common sense isn’t practiced by most drivers.

The Autobahn leads users to safe and efficient travel through effective rule-making and the expectation that rules will be followed.  And at 150 miles an hour, the consequences of not complying are obvious.

Second, because the Autobahn is expected to endure cars at much higher speeds, it has much smoother pavement than other interstates or highways. The autobahn pavement is twice as thick as what is found on US interstates and is very well maintained.

Instead of managing through consequence, the Autobahn leads through effective investment.  Instead of investing in police patrols, they invest in the underlying system.

Another factor contributing to the Autobahn’s safety is the quality of the vehicles on the road. The Autobahn has had a significant effect on the way cars are engineered.  The German auto industry has had to create cars with the Autobahn in mind. This makes German cars, as a whole, faster, and safer, than foreign competitors. The Autobahn has helped to ensure German cars are safe in crash testing, high speed maneuverability, and brakes. Even as we rebound from a global recession, German automobiles such as Audi, BMW, or Mercedes-Benz remain in high demand.

The Autobahn leads by helping to make the right tools available to users.

The fundamental difference between the U.S., Australia and German highway systems is that Germany doesn’t attempt to manage its populace; it leads them.

The Germans lead with effective lawmaking.  They place speed limits where it makes sense (like intersections) and then leave it up to the populace to do what most humans are hard-wired to do…protect themselves.  It works!

They lead by improving their roads to ensure that the driving surface is safe.  Instead of investing in police to “manage” their people, they invest in better equipment for their people to use. It works!

And then they made driving something serious…and expensive.  Driving is not whimsical and not for 15 or 16 year olds.  In Germany, driving is considered a privilege.  You have to be 17 to have a license.  It costs over $2,000 for a license after an extensive 25 to 45 hours of professional instruction and 12 hours of theory.  Driving in Germany is serious business and Autobahn drivers take their responsibilities seriously.  It works!

So how does this relate to your business?  Under-performing practices attempt to “manage” their staff in the same way that the U.S. manages its highways.  They share little information about their business.  They keep their staff “in line” by establishing rules and then focus the majority of their non-patient care time looking for those instances where rules are broken.  They “police” their practices like a highway patrol car.  What about the consequences necessary for this system to work?  Well, the majority of my clients are care-givers and conflict avoiders.  Thus, the consequences necessary for effective management aren’t promulgated nor enforced.  They focus their attention on driving down their costs by hiring individuals who have few skills…and then cry out for help when their skill-anemic team fails to deliver success.  These professionals are forever complaining that they can’t find good staff nor will staff do what they desire.  In these practices, leadership has set limitations on what the staff can do.  As with the U.S. highway system, these “speed limits” negatively impact performance.

Contrast that with other owners who invest the time, energy and money to find the very best people.  They pay these individuals well.  They invest in their personal development.  They create a vision for their desired outcome and invest in systems that lead their desired outcomes.  They then give their employees their head…asking that they “manage” themselves.  In these practices, there’s no “speed limit.”  And like the Autobahn, it shows in their performance.

The next time you think about your practice and your frustrations, consider the Autobahn and the difference between managing and leading.  What has the Autobahn taught us?

  • Hire good people
  • Give them the tools they need
  • Set some rules for them to live by
  • Expect compliance
  • Reward good behavior

Now move over and let them go.



Join us at our next event:

Exiting Vision Plans Conference

Discover the secrets to eliminating or reducing your reliance on vision plans.