I am not a perfect motorcyclist.
I got a late start compared to many, first swinging my leg over a bike at the ripe old age of 31. Growing up, motorcycling was always something that other people did. It seemed cool but I had never been exposed to it or had an opportunity to learn, and it wasn’t something that I was curious enough about to look into.
When I finally did discover riding as the result of a three month staring contest with an old ’72 Honda CB350 I found stored in the shed of an apartment I moved into, my life was revolutionized. It seemed to open a door to a part of me that I didn’t realize had been waiting to come to life. It also filled everything with more possibility, more joy and depth. Routes I had been driving on auto-pilot for years suddenly became pathways to brand new adventures. The hour-long drive to visit my parents became a favorite weekend passtime. I would get out of work, fire up my bike and just take off with no destination in mind, riding only for the sake of the ride. Every spare moment was one to be savored with two wheels underneath me and the wind in my face.
In the course of all this, I discovered things about myself. I also learned some valuable lessons that followed me into my work. In leadership it is imperative to draw from the full scope of our life’s experience if we are to be of maximum effectiveness. The lessons learned on the road are no exception.
They don’t look out for you. You look out for them.
It’s no mystery that people are at perhaps their most self-involved when driving. We feel entitled, we have no patience, and we’re quick to get hot under the collar if things don’t go our way. What’s more, a sort of silent competitiveness comes out on the road. Ever try to pass someone who’s clearly not going as fast as you are only to have them gun it when you pull up alongside them? Or roll up to a four-way stop with no light and watch everyone try to get into the intersection at once like they don’t know who got there first? Pretty dangerous, and even more so on a motorcycle.
Think about your leadership in the same way. Not in a paranoid “everyone’s out to get me” sense, but to the extent that you’ve got to stay focused and watch for danger and opportunity. Learn to read the landscape and the competition. If you’re operating with this in view, being mindful of their moves and learning to predict your own opportunities to pull ahead, you will find yourself in a much better position. If you focus solely on your own path, you may miss the danger coming up behind you. If you focus only on where everyone else is going, you’ll miss your chance to set yourself apart. The strong leader will develop a balanced view that takes the whole picture into scope.
Ride your own ride
Whether riding in a group or just on a popular route with a lot of other traffic, it can be tempting to push yourself harder than you’re used to in order to keep up or to not feel like a newbie. While riding with more experienced mates can be a great way to learn and improve your own skills, it’s important to always stay in touch with your own instincts and purpose. Just because they’re going fast and taking chances doesn’t necessarily mean that you should follow suit.
Even as a leader it may be tempting to run with the pack, to see what our competitors or more seasoned colleagues are chasing and set our sights to match, even if we may lack the skill and experience to keep pace. Ego creeps in, we don’t want to seem less capable than our peers.
You may work for an executive who approaches things in a certain way and think, “well, that must be how it’s done around here” even though their behaviors and attitudes may not feel quite aligned with your own sense of purpose. Do you follow the actions they have modeled, or do you define things for yourself? Using those around you as a benchmark is often necessary and not always the worst thing if you stay true to your goals and values, but if you’re competing just for the sake of pride you may want to reevaluate.
Stay in tune with your vision. Build habits that help you to maintain your objectivity. Working with intentionality and a competitive spirit is a good way to grow. Wearing yourself out and compromising yourself in an attempt to keep up is a good way to get hurt.
When I ride, I ride.
One of the things I love most about motorcycling is that I get to experience the world in a way that isn’t otherwise possible. It isn’t just about the adrenaline rush that comes with running full-throttle through a series of technical switchbacks or discovering how fast my bike can go on a deserted straightaway. Don’t get me wrong, those things are fantastic, but they aren’t the whole picture. On a recent ride I was on just such a road – a long, straight, unpatrolled swath of California blacktop pointing out into the desert. I opened up to a pretty good speed, but not so fast that I couldn’t take in my surroundings. The sun was at my back, just past its apex and falling perfectly on my shoulders. My nostrils were filled with an intoxicatingly subtle combination of desert scrub brush, dry red earth, and the faintest hint of expended fuel. The sky was a perfect blue, and at one point a hawk took flight off to my left and soared along above me for several miles. It was magical, not because of where I was going but because I was present to the details of the journey.
In our work lives, things can happen fast. We’ve got to think strategically, focus tactically, and navigate effectively all at the same time. So much of the focus is on the outcome, the results, the ROI, that often we overlook our love for the craft itself. We lose awareness of the little details that make up the landscape of our leadership, and when we do we begin to burn out.
The greatest gift a leader can give themselves is to create and maintain the space to stay present and appreciative of the process. There is an endless stream of talk about mindfulness in leadership these days, most of which I agree with.
When the going gets tough, the tough calm down.
One of the things that makes motorcycling so rewarding is the constant challenge. It requires you to engage all your senses, motor skills, coordination and instinct as you navigate your chosen route. The stakes are obviously high, and the margin of error is very slim. When you’re weary from a long day’s ride and you come across yet another technically demanding stretch, the tendency is to tense up. I’ll start to feel it in my shoulders first, then maybe I’ll notice that I’m gritting my teeth or clenching my hands too tightly on the grips. I start fighting the bike harder than I need to, which only compounds my increasing fatigue. Each new turn becomes a battle of will, one in which I’m focused on my stress, fixated on the fight rather than engaged in the greater context of the ride.
In the most successful of these moments I will pause and recall the bits of wisdom I’ve gleaned from other riders. Treat the grips like two small birds. Don’t crush them, hold them lightly. Apply only as much pressure as is needed to maintain control of the bike. Loosen up the hips, don’t let the shoulders from creeping up around your ears. Relax. Trust your instincts, and remember what you love about what you are doing.
What we look for in these moments of stress is a way to reconnect with our state of flow, a concept perhaps most frequently associated with the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s a state of connectedness, of being at one with one’s experience and environment and thus achieving a seemingly effortless state of mastery. If we can access this flow, we retain the ability to elevate ourselves above the stressors of the moment and maintain focus. We can actually use these experiences to increase mindfulness and reduce power stress to lead from a healthier state of objectivity.
Where you look, you go.
The concept is simple enough – look all the way through the turn, keep your eyes and head pointed toward the farthest edge of the spot you’re aiming for. If you’re making a slow U-turn, turn your head to look over your shoulder in the direction you want to go and the bike wheels itself around almost effortlessly. But if you’re nervous and don’t look all the way around you won’t make the turn. Your balance may falter, you’ll swing wide or possibly even lose it all together and have what I affectionately refer to as a “set down” – the non-catastrophic but highly embarrassing parking-lot case in which the bike’s weight tips past the fulcrum and you have no choice but to lay it on it’s side, as gently and nonchalantly as possible. And of course the stakes get exponentially higher as you take this principle up to cruising speed. If you’re shuttling along at a respectable pace when you come across a stone or a pothole or an especially tight corner, the natural tendency is to fix your eyes on it while thinking as hard as you can, “do NOT hit that!” 9 times out of 10? Bang! You hit the rock, or the hole, or have to break harder than you planned because you’ve taken the turn wide. And if you’re the wrong combination of fast, unlucky and off course, you’ll find yourself in much greater danger.
It took some time to learn to ignore my default reaction of looking directly in front of the bike and focus instead on the horizon. It didn’t come naturally, I felt that if I was looking out ahead I might miss something in front of me and veer off course. It took practice and patience to learn to entrust the immediate path to my peripheral vision while keeping focused on the longer range target around the next corner.
When your primary focus is the danger, you’ll go toward the danger. If you can learn to see and acknowledge the risk but focus primarily on the goal on the other side, your odds of success increase dramatically. The same is true of leadership. As discussed in much of the research in contemporary positive psychology, there is a stronger stance and greater potential in working toward a goal than there is when putting energy into avoiding an obstacle.
These are just a handful of the many lessons learned on the road. And “on the road” can mean something different for each of us. For me, it’s on two wheels with the wind in my face and the world spooling out before me in an endless lattice of new adventure. For others it may be standing on the banks of a bubbling stream with a fishing rod in hand, or free climbing the stone face of a towering mountain. The method itself is less important than the ability to connect these aspects of our experience to our deeper truths and bring these out in the work we do as leaders. These lessons serve to move and fuel us, and in turn create more resonance in our ability to inspire growth in others.
What’s your “road”? What has it taught you that you about leadership and service? Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org – I’d love to learn more about what moves you!
Also published on Medium.