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Right People on the Bus is the Wrong Metaphor for Culture

Greek warships approach the Trojan shores
(scene from the movie Troy)

This article is adapted from my book Building a Culture of Ownership in Healthcare, written with Bob Dent.

Jim Collins is the bestselling author of Built to Last and Good to Great, as well as other books on leadership and culture. One of his best-known metaphors is that the first step toward building and sustaining a great organization is having “the right people on the bus.” In presentations, I’ll sometimes ask for a show of hands by those who agree with that statement. Almost every hand goes up. Except mine.

There are three problems with this “right-people-on-the-bus” metaphor, and taking it seriously can lead to serious misunderstandings:

Problem #1: Unless your name is over the doorway, you most likely cannot choose whom to let on the bus, especially not in the short term. The “right” people might not be available, or you might not be able to afford them. And, in most organizations, you can’t just throw the “wrong” people off the bus. Tenure, special skills, HR policies, staffing shortages, and other factors make it difficult (often appropriately so) to discharge employees who seem to not fit on the bus without extended due process.

If your organization has several hundreds, or several thousands, of employees, they are all most likely to be taking their seat on the bus tomorrow, whether or not they fit your definition of being the right people for the bus.

Problem #2: “Bus” is a metaphor for a top-down, accountability-driven organization. A bus has only one driver – everyone else is a passive passenger. The driver determines the destination (the vision) and does all the work to get there; the passengers’ only function is to sit and wait for the journey to end.

It does not matter how engaged or disengaged the passengers are; no effort, or lack of effort, on their part will make the bus go faster or in a different direction.

So, if you can’t just choose the “right” people for the bus and throw the “wrong” people off the bus, what can you do?
A new metaphor is needed. The best one is the galley ship, where every hand on the oars helps to determine direction and speed of the vessel.

In his book A War Like No Other about the Peloponnesian War, Victor Davis Hanson describes how the superbly trained, disciplined, and motivated crews of Athenian warships terrified enemy fleets. On an Athenian trireme, every oarsman knew his job and put his back into the work. No one needed a deck master cracking the whip – they were driven by pride, commitment to the mission, and loyalty to their cities and to their comrades-in-arms.

Metaphors are incredibly powerful. The words and mental pictures you choose will shape your thinking in subtle but profound ways. Thinking of your organization (or your part of the organization) as a galley ship rather than a bus might open new insights into how the promotion of a stronger Culture of Ownership can engage every rower to pull on the oars, rather than passively sit in their seats waiting for the bus to deliver them to whatever destination the driver has in mind.

The next time you find yourself tempted to talking about having the right people on the bus, switch to a nautical metaphor. “All Hands on Deck” or “Every Hand on the Oars” is a much more powerful image than “Every Butt in a Seat,” don’t you think?

At Values Coach our purpose is transforming people through the power of values and transforming organizations through the power of people. We do that by helping leaders build a stronger Culture of Ownership on a Foundation of Values. 

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