What I learned about leadership driving a bus

By Barbara Pastores

My story begins on a Saturday morning in early March.  It was one of those beautiful spring days and I was on a bike ride with my friend Bonnie on the Cedar River Trail.  I had recently finished my immersion role with the King County Facilities Management Division as part of the King County Bridges Fellowship program to develop leaders. So I was thinking about leadership stuff when I heard a loud splash.

I slowed down and Bonnie caught up to me, smiled and said “Did you see the beaver?”

I said “NO! Dang it I have always wanted to see a beaver!”

And that’s when I had my first “bucket list flash alert” of “I am 55 years old and I may well go to my grave with the only image of a beaver in my mind being that from Narnia!” 

I tried to put that thought aside as quickly as it had come and peddled on pondering what I had learned about leadership as a Bridge Fellow. The first thing I learned is really a confirmation of something I have long believed—effective leaders treat people in the way they want them to behave.

I was fortunate to experience my second leadership lesson firsthand during my role immersion:  effective leaders not only have a clear vision of what they are trying to accomplish, but they have enough confidence in their vision that they can step aside and let the people who implement it decide how to.

The third lesson I learned as a Bridge fellow is the idea that leadership is not positional. Early on as a bus driver I realized that how I treated my passengers had an effect on the tone of the bus. But I never attached the words “leadership” or “position” or “vision” to it.  Now though, I recognize that I have had a vison that my bus trips be trouble free and enjoyable. And for that to happen, I need my passengers to behave a certain way and I therefore need to treat them a certain way.

So I practice these four principles when I drive: patience, compassion, kindness and an open heart.  And I say practice because there are days when all it takes is one trip down Third Avenue and all of that is out the window.

When that happens I tell myself that I am learning the fourth tenet of leadership—the courage to fail.  I believe that strong leaders set goals for themselves with enough stretch in them that there is an inherent risk of failure.  Leaders not only accept that risk, but they have the humility to acknowledge failure and the courage to try again.

It’s been a couple of months since I returned to driving after my immersion role. I’ve been in the “courage classroom.” Things have been going well, and then, just last week, there was a fight in the back of my bus.

I was able to calm the situation down, but I was saddened by it because the people fighting were obviously struggling to survive. I realized that my way of coping with seeing that struggle on a daily basis was to think of my passengers as us and them.  When in reality all of us, all of us in this room and all of us on any given bus trip, are casualties of social and economic policies that for too long have favored corporate profits over an individual’s mental, physical and emotional wellbeing.

Some of us may look more like survivors. We just have more tools in our belts. But all of us are affected.  And as long as we fall into the trap of thinking in the us\them dichotomy we cannot lead with an open heart.  We also can’t practice the fifth tenet of leadership—believing in the people you lead.

It was with all these thoughts swirling in my head last Wednesday that I began my last trip in.  Things were going beautifully. I was on time. The people were great.  I had gotten past all my potential trouble spots, crossed the Fremont Bridge, and turned onto Westlake Avenue.

For those of you who don’t know, Westlake is the last inner city “highway” left in this traffic tangled town. Those of us who travel it regularly do so at the appropriate speed.  So I was getting ready to cruise, but then noticed the oncoming traffic was stopping.  So I slowed down and then stopped because there, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, crossing that inner-city highway, head held high, was a beaver.

For those of you that have the Narnia image stuck in your head I am happy to report that the movie did a pretty good job on the visuals. And if you are familiar with the story you know that beavers have a leadership role.

As did this beaver. She had a vision. She had the courage to fail. She wasn’t worried about what the humans (with whom she needed cooperation) thought of her position.  In fact, she believed in us so much that she patiently waited until we found our compassion and kindness.

And I know she opened my heart that day, especially when she looked at me. By the time I had stopped my bus I was blocking her path.  So I took one more look and then slowly rolled on, watching in the rearview mirror until the road curved and I lost sight of her.

I also lost sight of the two trucks that had been next to and behind me. They didn’t catch me until Mercer Street so I am going with the assumption that she made it.  And in doing so, she did one other thing that leaders sometimes need to do—she bent the rules.  She didn’t wait for a green light to pursue her goals. In fact she wasn’t even on the prescribed crosswalk path.

It is in her spirit that I have gone over my two minute limit so I will close with thanking you for your patience and with thanking Tony Wright, Elissa Benson and Sheri Hill for all they taught me about leadership during my immersion role with the King County Facilities Management Division.

 

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Barbara Pastores

Barbara Pastores was a Metro bus driver for 34 years.  She was one of the “inaugural” King County Bridge Fellows, Class of 2014-2015. She shared this story—without notes—at the Bridge Fellow Graduation ceremony in May of 2015. It is a true story.

Barbara recently promoted to First Line Supervisor in Training for King County Metro.

4 thoughts on “What I learned about leadership driving a bus

  1. Barbara’s posting was a delight to read. I moved here from Louisiana about seven months ago and I am continually struck by the professionalism, kindness and patience of our bus drivers. Suffice it to say, those are not words typically applied to the drivers in Louisiana. I use the bus daily to commute to work and on most weekends for personal errands and the trips are almost always a pleasure. Thanks to Barbara and the entire staff of drivers!

  2. What a great story! I am so proud to work for King County when I see the caliber of our employees, and the leadership that made it possible for people like Barbara to be involved in programs like the Bridge Fellows.

  3. so glad I took the time to click on the link in the Employee News email and finish this story. It looks like we lost a great bus driver bus gained a Supervisor who is trying to embody what it takes to be a great leader. I’m reminded on a daily basis how fortunate I am to be a King County employee.

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