What Owning A Classic Car Has Taught Me About Being A Leader

Emily Porter is President, West at Havas Formula, where she oversees the agency’s West Coast business.

I’m not mechanical. Techy perhaps, but not mechanical. A little over a year ago I got a wild idea to buy a classic car. Not sure if this qualifies me for a midlife crisis, but I’d like to think it was more about learning something completely different and having some fun. Plus, I’ve always loved cars — the craftmanship, the power of the engine and the control behind the wheel. For my first classic purchase, I opted for something accessible and simple: a 1966 MG MGB.

As I’m sure more tenured classic car owners can relate — while fun, this little enterprise is often a test of patience. Throughout my short classic car ownership, I’ve been struck by just how many leadership parallels I’ve gathered along the way. The following are some of the best worth sharing:

1. Balance Control

At first, the MG felt foreign. I was accustomed to my modern car with all its electronics — push-button start, sensors, navigation and automatic everything. My first education was on how to use the choke — a little valve in the carburetor that controls the amount of air in the fuel mixture. For an old car, a choke is critical to get the car started as it allows you to get more fuel through the engine. If you underuse the choke, it will make it hard for the car to start, while overuse can lead to flooding. Finding the right balance in operating the choke is key to getting the car running.

In leadership, this is no different. Often when a problem arises, it’s a matter of determining how much control to exert over a certain situation and knowing when just to let a situation run its course (the restraint frequently being the most difficult part). Unfortunately, there’s no playbook for this. Good leaders must be able to read a situation (and people) well and understand how much pressure to exert to obtain the optimal outcome.

2. Connection Is Everything

According to Cars.com, only 1.3% of cars sold in the United States last year were manual transmission. When I bought the MG, I had no idea how to drive a stick shift even though I’ve been driving since I was 14. I conquered the manual transmission and have come to appreciate the skills required, and I cherish the control and sense of connection it affords. The dominance of automatic cars is no surprise given the overall ease of driving. However, the sense of connection with the vehicle is not the same.

Similarly, leaders must stay connected to be effective. As you progress in your career, it becomes easier and easier to become detached from the efforts of the staff below you. Good leaders stay connected to the work and their people — keeping their skills fresh while maintaining an understanding (even if not deep) of how things work at all levels. Most importantly, a leader must know the right moments to participate at a more intensive level. It’s impossible to lead if you’re unaware of what your staff is experiencing. Feeling and maintaining that connection is everything.

3. Lean Into Your Community

Admittedly, before I bought the MGB I envisioned myself cruising along the highway without a care. I romanticized the idea. I knew nothing. Nothing about how to open the hood, how to check the water level, what type of oil I needed, how to troubleshoot random issues and noises, what to do with a trickle charger and (most importantly) how to jump the car. I realized that owning a classic car was going to be a lot more difficult without a community. It didn’t take long for me to join an online MG group. Despite my amateur questions, the group was amazingly welcoming, nonjudgmental and helpful. It also didn’t take long for me to build a relationship with a mechanic who I could trust to diagnose fixes and field questions.

As a leader at a PR agency, I often spend the bulk of my days answering questions from colleagues, staff and clients. There’s an inherent pressure to always have the answer. A truly great leader will always work hard to solve problems and pose recommendations and answers, but they won’t be afraid to call upon their community for opinions and ideas.

4. Value Longevity

Classic cars don’t run as well as our modern-day cars, and they aren’t as equipped or even as convenient — yet a good majority of us still relish in them. I’m sure nostalgia comes into play for some, but for others I think driving a classic car is about appreciating another era, respecting that the vehicle has stood the test of time and treasuring the value in its rarity. I know in my grandparents’ day it wasn’t uncommon for someone to be with a company for 20-plus years. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 the median number of years an employee stayed with their company was 4.2 years.

As a leader, while I love bringing in fresh new additions to our organization — their energy, new ideas and unique experiences — I cannot help but appreciate the stick-to-itiveness of those that have made annual contributions for decades running. At a time where everyone is looking for the next best thing, I admire and value the perseverance of those who remain loyal to a company’s mission. These individuals understand the company’s history, have built the collegial relationships essential for keeping the organization running smoothly and have vested themselves in the very fabric of the operation. Successful leaders understand the value of this longevity and do their very best to protect these rare contributors.

Final Thoughts

Like owning a classic car, being a leader is often unpredictable. You must always be prepared to work through the problem to get things running in the right direction. As Dale Earnhardt, the late auto racing driver, said, “It’s a never-ending battle of making your cars better and also trying to be better yourself.” He’s so incredibly right.


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