The 5 Leadership Lessons That Fixing Cars Taught Me by Mark Woodward
At 17, I didn’t think much about what I’d do with my life beyond racing my motorcycle and working at a local garage. My job as an auto mechanic, though an extension of my interests, felt disconnected from my idea of “real life,” which I assumed would happen at some later point, in adulthood.
But, fast-forward a number of years, well, a lot of years: Now that my so-called real life has begun, it’s clear that that first job was more than just a way to save up for a new car and stay out of trouble.
In fact, the job not only guided my career path in unexpected ways but taught me what it meant to be a hard worker and an effective leader. I already knew how to fix cars, but being a mechanic taught me how to solve problems. Specifically, I learned how to confront seemingly insurmountable challenges with tenacity and curiosity. I took these skills with me as I went on to become a computer programmer, sales manager and, eventually, a CEO.
Here are the five things I learned about leadership from working as a mechanic:
1. Get your hands dirty.
We often think of leaders as visionaries who delegate the execution of their great ideas to others in the company. In my experience, however, great ideas come from people at every level of the organization.
The best leaders are builders and facilitators: They intentionally create a culture that encourages creativity, big thinking and hard work. A key piece of developing that culture is wholehearted participation in the work. Because your actions and attitude set the tone, your focus and grit matter just as much as your vision. This is true whether you work at a garage or in the corner office.
2. Trust that you’ll find a solution.
As a mechanic, I got used to encountering challenges on a daily basis because every client came to the garage with a problem. Sometimes, they were easy fixes. Often, though, they were complex and vague: “Something is off with the engine,” or, “I hear this awful sound when I accelerate.” It was my charge to resolve these problems with a finite toolbox.
I learned that with a little bit of cleverness, out-of-the-box thinking and, occasionally, brute force (toward the car, not the owner), I’d figure it out. I couldn’t tell you exactly how I’d do it, but I knew I’d find the solution. I’ve since applied the same thinking to complex business deals as I once did to frozen bolts in hard-to-reach parts of a car engine. By continuing to grapple with tough problems, day in and day out, I’ve developed confidence in my ability to set a goal and then power through until it’s met.
It’s human nature to panic when things fall apart at a critical moment, but I’ve observed how some people actually get calmer when things go wrong. This is absolutely a skill that can be honed and cultivated. When challenges arise, it’s critical to take a moment, focus on the one or two top things to prioritize and then decide how best to rally your team around that direction.
To paraphrase Steve Jobs, what you choose not to do is just as important as what you choose to do. When faced with a mess of a problem — whether you’re running a major corporation or fixing a car in an auto shop — don’t take on too much. Take a deep breath. Focus on the one thing you can do immediately to have the biggest impact. Then, repeat.
4. Be curious about how things work.
Fixing a car — especially if you’re taking one apart and putting it together again — requires understanding how every part of the machine fits together. You need to consider the overall problem while solving it piece by piece at a detailed level.
Successful business leaders do the same: They keep the big picture in mind while thinking about how each part of the company — department, individual, product or campaign — fits into the larger vision. They consider how these components advance the vision, and empathize with the people who are experts at each one.
5. Balance self-reliance and teamwork.
Leaders figure out where the company needs to go, and build a team that will work together to get there. No matter how talented you are as an individual, it’s impossible to have a meaningful impact all on your own. Aspiring leaders tend to be self-starters, so this lesson can be tough to internalize.
As a mechanic, and indeed throughout much of my life since, I’ve relied on myself. I took pride in my ability to solve problems independently. Now that I’m a CEO, I’ve realized that leadership involves balancing my individual efforts and the work of the broader team. As with any complex machinery, the whole of a business is far greater than the sum of its parts.