Are You a Roadrunner Leader or a Wile E. Coyote Boss?

Two cartoon characters meet on the New Mexico desert to match wits. Spectators are instantly struck by the David and Goliath parallel. The program that came with the tickets says that coyotes can run 30 mph… and this particular coyote is hungry, already tasting his next meal. And it tells us roadrunners can’t really fly—soaring short distances is about it – and can run 16 mph… tops.

Wile E. Coyote brings several advantages to the fray. He has a seemingly endless arsenal of roadrunner-trapping gadgets provided by a mysterious manufacturer named Acme. And he relentlessly uses these tools against his scrawny, defenseless opponent with great cunning and stealth. He is a master planner, obsessed with visions of fricasseed roadrunner!

The line on this match heavily favors the Coyote. Who would bet a dime on the gawky bird that seems oblivious to the fact that a contest is even underway? Yet time and again, the Road Runner eludes and escapes! As we toss the stubs of our betting slips, the Road Runner’s victories baffle us.

The Road Runner’s feats defy logic. He races through imaginary tunnels as if they were real. He never gets wet when there’s water everywhere. He outmaneuvers a faster, stronger opponent by making speed superfluous. He turns the ingenuity of his opponent into embarrassing results… so embarrassing that many spectators laugh, even though they bet on the coyote. How can we comprehend such absurdity? The Road Runner has a secret that Wile E. never figures out. The bird is operating under completely different rules.

The rules of the business road have changed and we must master them quickly if we are to be successful. Solving today’s challenges with yesterday’s patterns is as futile as the Acme schemes on which Wile E. relies. It isn’t that Wile E. doesn’t know that he loses, he doesn’t get why he loses! Winning organizations make innovation a centerpiece of their culture, not just their strategy. And, that takes leaders who are willing to real…and, characters.

Roadrunner leaders are real – fostering an inventing culture by communicating geniuses. They know actions of authenticity are needed to level the inventing field. They show obvious vulnerability thus creating judgment-free relationships. Authority and rank are the enemies of creativity, learning and growth. Roadrunner leaders know if they demonstrate support and care, they bolster a crucial foundation for risk-taking and make-a-bit-of-a-fool-out-of-yourself behavior necessary for insight and invention. They encourage zany, out-of-the-box thinking and action.

Roadrunner leaders are characters. The Road Runner knows that being “normal,” as in follow-the-rules conservatism, is a prescription for being Wile E’ next meal. So, he pursues “not normal.” Real roadrunners don’t look normal… they are multi-colored in wild shades. Roadrunners don’t sound normal… other birds sing and chirp! Roadrunners don’t move normally… other birds fly. Roadrunners don’t eat normal… their diet is lizards and snakes, not worms and bugs. Southwest Airlines’ CEO Gary Kelly is typically dressed the wildest at their annual Halloween party.

Roadrunner leaders know the spirit of a supportive community is one of genuine care. They are willing to confidently reveal their own challenges and frustrations. They invite exploration and innovation by offering support, not rebuke or obstacles. They challenge without being challenging; they push for greatness without being parental. They cultivate a work environment that encourages associates to reassure, not reproach; to bolster, not blame. They support the purposeful pursuit of excellence through the respectful treatment of partners. They invite candor; discourage rancor.

Roadrunner leaders are ardent students of life. They ask more questions, read more books, seek out more diverse thinkers and pursue more life-changing experiences than their counterparts. They put learning at the top of their agenda… and leave it there. They provide quick and noticeable affirmation to other enthusiastic learners in the organization. They teach, they mentor, and they learn.

“Corporations around the world are reaching the limits of incrementalism,” wrote Gary Hamel in a Harvard Business Review article. “Squeezing another penny out of costs, getting product to market a few weeks earlier, responding to customers’ inquiries a little bit faster, ratcheting quality up one more notch, capturing another point of market share – those are the obsessions of managers today. But pursuing incremental improvements while rivals reinvent the industry is like fiddling while Rome burns.” The leader of the future will be a roadrunner. Beep! Beep!

Chip R. Bell is a customer loyalty consultant and the author of several best-selling books. His newest book is Managers as Mentors coauthored with Marshall Goldsmith. He also wrote Beep! Beep! Competing in the Age of the Road Runner published by Warner Books, produced by Warner Bros. and illustrated by the late Chuck Jones, creator of the cartoon characters. He can be reached at and the new mentoring book can be purchased at