In this world of technology, decision-making is sometimes surrendering to gadgets. When I was a child, driving back to Brooklyn from our bungalow in Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey was always an adventure. Sitting in the backseat of the 1956 Plymouth, my brother and I always wondered which way my father would take us–take Route 46 or not Route 46, take the tunnel or take the bridge, go down the Van Wyck or take the Cross Island into the Belt Parkway? The drive was a tactical adventure, as my father would speculate, evaluate, and adjust. No matter how often we made the trip, we would dream of a route we had not taken, with the ultimate Holy Grail, figuring out how to get back to Brooklyn while avoiding the Cross Bronx Expressway and Manhattan.
One day last week I drove back to New York from our weekend home outside of Saugerties, NY. It was the first truly beautiful spring day. Since I was accompanied by two friends and my son, I thought it would be a great addition to make a brief stop at Storm King–to my mind, the greatest contemporary sculpture garden. What could be better than Storm King on a warm spring afternoon? The fact that it was right off the thruway, an easy-on, easy-off, made it a no-brainer. As we approached Exit 17, I decided almost spontaneously to turn on my GPS. A mellow, male British voice instructed me to be prepared to make a right turn in 200 meters, and then to continue for another 100 meters. My son had apparently replaced Betty, who spoke about miles in plain English, with the Duke, who had the tonality of an English professor and directed in meters. Twenty minutes after the exit, we had still not arrived. While I was tempted to shut the Duke up, I continued to let him jabber, because I was, as they say, over committed to my GPS. I swore this was it. No more GPS.
Finally we made it and had a wonderful casual hour on the grounds of Storm King. As we got back to the car, with hesitation and reluctance, I reawakened the Duke. My GPS insecurity was showing. As we drove out of Storm King, I saw a sign for Route 32, which was the best way to get back to the city. The Duke directed me to make a left. To make a long story short, it was a long way home, past West Point, the Bear Mountain Bridge, Yankee Stadium, and much of the Upper East Side, which I suppose was a welcome change. The trip took about an hour and half longer than ever before.
My father had no GPS, but I have a hunch that were he alive today, he would be hesitant to rely on it, and rely instead on his own instinct, judgment, knowledge, experience. When challenged by the GPS to turn left, my father would have gone straight ahead. The GPS is a metaphor for our world, and the question we must all ask is whether real leaders—people who are really proactive and take charge–should rely on their GPS or rely a bit more on their experience, knowledge, and judgment.
Proactive leaders should learn from these little side-trips and remember that while leadership may demand technology, gadgets, and decision rules, they have to know how and when to use the GPS. Proactive leaders know that tools should never be the final arbitrator of all decisions. Proactive leaders know how to get back from Storm King without being detoured to the Bear Mountain Bridge.