What “Stay in Your Lane” Says About Your Leadership

“Stay in your lane” is the advice leaders give to those who they have “empowered” to take leadership positions. When committee chairs or other individuals begin to make suggestions or ask questions that are perceived to be beyond their duties or the charge of the committee they are told to “stay in your lane.”

Ostensibly it makes sense. Those who practice “inclusive” or “participatory” leadership seek to involve many on the work. If one group or individual begins to exceed the limited role they have been asked to play, then they my infringe on the territory of another who is participating in the leadership.

“Stay in your lane” seems contrary to effective leadership in two ways, however.

First, “staying on one’s lane” suggests they should think about neither how others’ work affects them (and the leadership role they have been asked to accept) nor how their work may affect others. In the complex and interconnected organizations we have created, it seems the opposite of leadership to ignore these effects. The boundaries of responsibility of arbitrary and treating anything outside of the artificial lanes as a “black boxes” that receive input from or send output to others is to ignore the realities of the organization and its operation. Participatory leadership does require lanes but staying inside them always is an approach that will lead to disconnected and ineffective solutions.

Second, “staying in your lane” suggests the leader will accept the recommendations of those who are participating in the leadership and make the final decision. There is something about leadership that make it inherently non-participatory. Ultimately, there is an individual responsible for making a decision, and that is a good thing. When participating in leadership, one is understanding how “things” can be done, and negotiating (known) local circumstances, theory, and other’s praxis to recommend the best approach. Leaders are positioned to understand other circumstances, some of which prevent certain actions from being taken (even when those may be agreed to be the best).

This leads me to one of two conclusions when I am told to “stay in your lane.” The leader is either saying:

“I do now want you to think about how your ‘lane’ affects or is affected by the other activities in the organization.”

“There are other factors that will determine the decision that is made.”

If I am correct with my first conclusion, then you do not understand the complexity of your organization, so you are unlikely to make sound decisions. If I am correct in my second conclusion then your decisions lack transparency. Yes I understand you sometimes can’t be clear about these other reasons for privacy or political reasons, but be clear in that. I am more likely to trust a leader who says “you are making recommendations that will be unpopular politically” than one who says “stay in your lane.”