My husband and I recently returned from a short vacation where, starting in Louisville, we drove across Kentucky and parts of Tennessee, ending up in Hendersonville, NC to visit with my mom for Mother’s Day. It was the kind of trip my husband and I use to take now and then when we were younger: full of discovery and largely unplanned except for the overnight stops and a few “must-see” spectacles (in this case, Mammoth Caves).
We told Becky (that’s what we’ve named the woman inside our GPS) to avoid interstates and instead to keep us driving along what William Least Heat-Moon once called “Blue Highways,” those tiny map lines that lead from one small town to another. It’s the kind of trip that often leads to out-of-the-way diners, old-fashioned soda fountains and decorated movie theaters that still show just one movie at a time.
The trip turned out to be a bittersweet combination of beauty and sadness. On the one hand we were driving through incredibly beautiful country filled with rolling hills and farmland one minute and steep, rocky tors the next. Despite on-and-off gray skies, the surrounding green was almost overwhelming. The towns we went through, though, had a weather-worn look of their own. Many had shops and stores with boarded windows, and most of the parking places were sadly vacant. Yet just outside of town one could find the box stores and fast food chains, their lots full of cars, trucks and campers. Big, noisy and shiny, these stores and restaurants were getting all the attention, yet I can’t say that the people we saw were happy about it. These were their towns, after all.
I wonder how often, when we lead, we end up paying more attention to the big, noisy and shiny ideas and forget about the hard-working, get-the-job-done people and ideas that really make us successful. When I look around at some of my clients I occasionally feel that leadership too easily forgets all the “small towns” that make up an organization. We should think of them, nurture them, for without them we may only be left with a steady diet of big ideas without the operation behind them to make them work steadily, productively and happily. What have your “road trips” revealed to you?