It turns out you can learn a lot about leadership by riding the subway. The subway systems in London and New York, for example, have a lot in common: both serve the largest cities in their respective countries; both systems are over 100 years old; both are shining examples of an effective, modern public transportation system — but only one of them acts like a leader.
When a train stops in New York, an announcement will come on apologizing “for the unavoidable delay.” The recorded message will continue to urge passengers to “please be patient, we will be moving momentarily.” If the delay continues, the same recorded message will repeat again and again until the train finally moves.
It’s very different in London. When an Underground train stops, a human being comes on over the PA system and tells you what he knows. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he may say, “sorry for the delay. I’ve just been given word that someone has fallen on the tracks at the station ahead. We know that the paramedics are on their way but they are not there yet. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait here until they arrive and clear the track. I’ll keep you updated on any information as I get it. Thank you for your patience.”
Both apologize for the delay and both thank passengers for their patience, but only aboard the London Underground are passengers given the reason for the delay. Only the Tube is sharing information with the people in a normal way — and it makes a huge difference.
More information is always better than less. When people know the reason things are happening, even if it’s bad news, they can adjust their expectations and react accordingly. Keeping people in the dark only serves to stir negative emotions. In New York, almost immediately, passengers start looking at their watches and muttering unsavory language under their breath. Some do it out loud. Some people start to get anxious. What if it’s a bomb? What if we’re stuck here all day? What are we going to do? Without any information, people create their own. And that’s what causes fear, paranoia and anger.
In London, the passengers may be frustrated by the delay, but they don’t react the same way. They are more relaxed and they deal with the situation with much less stress.
Sharing information is what a good leader does, even if he doesn’t know the whole story. Share the context for the situation people find themselves in, and the reaction of your colleagues will be very different than if you don’t. Keep people in the dark and they’ll see you as the enemy. Keep them abreast of what you know and they will see you in the same predicament as themselves. This creates camaraderie. More importantly, if they know more, they are more likely to help fix or alleviate the situation and get things done — all because you took the time to make a short, honest announcement.