Sometimes leadership lessons sneak up in unexpected locations. On Tuesday at 1am, that location was Highway 55 between Chicago and St Louis. In preparation for my future career as a nomadic carnival worker, I have decided to take the requisite post-undergraduate road trip out West. My buggy, a 2005 Chevy Cobalt, hobbles down expressways with the weight of four passengers, a spunky cat, two clown dolls, and fountains of energy drinks. On Tuesday, as my friends slumbered and the cat serenaded the car with rhythmic purrs from her nook or cranny, I began studying the lumbering giants sharing the road with me. As I coaxed my Chevy between trucks like a caffeinated ant dodging elephants, I contemplated the life of a truck driver.
Truck drivers, whether transporting water beds or Mexican jumping beans, must mobilize a hefty load toward a defined goal. By virtue of their independence and responsibility, they become highway leaders—executives in the mysterious asphalt jungle that links distance locations. Each driver is an Odysseus who struggles through a hero’s journey while conquering various obstacles along the way. While amateurs like me muddle past in clown cars, truckers maintain a consistent pace that allows them to complete their voyage. They recruit sympathetic coalition partners like dispatchers, service center clerks, meteorologists, and fellow drivers, to assist them as they drive their agenda forward. Through shrewd political capability, they establish their credibility and ensure that these partners will come to the rescue when something blocks their course. Finally, they check their egos at the toll booth; there’s no room in their cab for hefty hubris and vanity doesn’t increase gas mileage.
Truckers also share something intimate and often taboo to discuss with fellow leaders: loneliness. Talk radio and garage funk music offer poor company on a graveyard shift through rural Missouri. Like an executive left alone with a massive merger agenda, truck drivers must carry abundant loads of poise and patience. Leaders struggle with the solitude of decision-making and the pressures of authority while avoiding narcissistic obsession. Ultimately, when your agenda succeeds or fails, coalition partners disappear and you alone receive the accolades or blame. The leader’s journey is inevitably an isolating pursuit and aspiring executives must grapple with this reality. At least, when the going gets tough, you can commiserate with the Highway 55 truckers and wish you were travelling with a cat and clown dolls.