"Female Cyclist" by Michael Lee
This weekend, I accomplished something I had never done before. After months of training, I completed my first “century ride” – that’s 100 miles on a bike, for those that may not know the cycling terminology. On one of the most beautiful days I can remember in Cincinnati, I spent more than six hours on my bike, riding next to my husband through rural towns north of Cincinnati. It was both tiring and exhilarating! During the hours that I pedaled, my mind wandered, as I thought of the many leadership analogies I could draw from this experience.
Leaders Set “Stretch Goals”
The best leaders are not happy with the status quo. They look for ways to stretch themselves and their teams. By pushing a little further, they know they can get the best out of everyone, including themselves. Yes, sometimes this means taking on a bit of risk; going to places they’ve never gone before…but leaders know if they’re not moving forward, they’re stagnant. John Maxwell said it best, “If we’re growing, we’re always going to be out of our comfort zone.”
Prior to this weekend, the longest ride I had ever done was 65 miles. Could I do 35 more miles? That’s a big difference; a lot of miles, and I knew it would require more than I had ever given to this sport. It was a risk to some extent. I didn’t know if my body could handle the physical requirements. I’ve had both back and knee trouble in the past, but I weighed the risk and made the decision to go for it! I’ve always loved a good challenge – and a century would definitely provide a challenge!
Leaders Create and Adhere to Strategic Plans
A critical success factor of leadership is, of course, leading the team to the end goal. Once a stretch goal has been set, leaders need to figure out the best way to achieve that goal. They need to think creatively and strategically, and they need to keep everyone on track and focused on how to get there. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry states, “a goal without a plan is just a wish.”
Once I made the decision to do a century ride, I turned to expert cyclists and experienced centurions for advice on training plans, supplements and tips for success. I drew up a plan, marked dates and mileage on my calendar and forced myself to adhere to it. Life doesn’t always make it easy to follow a plan, and the many distractions of work, friends and other responsibilities sometimes made it quite difficult…but I knew I needed to follow the plan to accomplish this goal and to give it my all.
Leaders Know How and When to Remain Steady
We’ve all heard it before – “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” Even with the best strategic plans, there’s always something that will come across a leader’s path to make them question the route they’re taking. Unless there is a very compelling reason to change the plans, leaders have to maintain confidence and a strong backbone to follow-through on the plans that have been made. They need to be able to discern between a bump in the road or a huge roadblock that requires redirection.
During the course of the bike ride, there were several bumps in the road – a pothole here, a tree root there, or perhaps a squirrel scurrying across the bike path. Regardless, I had to remain focused and balanced on the bike to keep my pace and to not lose control (which can be tricky sometimes when you’re down on your handlebars and your feet are clipped in!!) Not only that, but there was one point where the bike path had a large intersection of paths that continued in several directions. We had to make a decision on which way to proceed. Ultimately, we chose the path that would ensure the end goal – 100 miles –without question, could be attained.
Leaders Remain Focused When Times are Tough
There’s an old saying, “Champions don’t become champions in the ring. They are merely recognized there.” Essentially, it’s not the win that makes us champions; it’s the endurance, the training, the focus! Every leader will face challenges and may feel discouraged; however, staying true to a good plan that incorporates the right elements will eventually bring the desired results. Leaders must exercise the right combination of focus and patience to endure these low points.
Likewise, I can tell you that miles 80-85 were tough for me. I began to question myself, my strength, my endurance, even my training plan. Did I do the right things? Had I done enough? Am I really prepared to finish this? At mile 85, my body got a second wind and my spirit, as well, was lifted. “I can do this!” I told myself…and I was grateful that I had stayed the course. My patience and endurance had been rewarded with the return of a good rhythm that carried me through to the end.
Leaders Find Ways to Motivate and Encourage
While it’s important to stay focused and to be prepared for obstacles ahead, leaders know that they have to keep their team motivated and engaged along the way. They encourage and reward the right behaviors displayed by their team. They celebrate milestones and small successes along the way. This positive reinforcement helps fuel the team for the larger goals that still lie ahead, and it also helps them to enjoy the ride along the way.
For me, one of the motivators along the ride was the scenery, as we approached each new town in this rural part of northern Cincinnati that I had never seen. I could easily imagine how these towns were bustling with activity along the former railway, which was now the bike path we were traveling. There were beautiful, restored farm houses, quaint little communities and colorful fields of crops and flowers. I couldn’t wait to go another mile ahead to see what awaited us in this beautiful countryside that looked so different from home. It was, indeed, a reward for me to see the creative pictures nature would display.
Leaders Know When to Lead and When to Empower Others
The best leaders aren’t just leading; they’re building future leaders, and essentially creating their replacements. They empower their teams, leverage their individual strengths and allow them to shine and gain credit to advance the team as a whole. Author and Leadership expert, Sheila Murray Bethel writes “If leadership serves only the leader, it will fail. Ego satisfaction, financial gain, and status can all be valuable tools for a leader, but if they become the only motivations, they will eventually destroy a leader. Only when service for a common good is the primary purpose are you truly leading.” In other words, the benefit should be for the good of the team, and sometimes that means the leader may be a follower instead.
This is an important lesson in cycling. Although it may appear to be an individual sport, the truth is that it’s highly dependent upon the team as a whole. The key to cycling success is knowing when to draft. Cycling teams ride in a line, with the leader taking on the wind resistance for the team. Those following the leader get the benefit of the aerodynamics and don’t have to work as hard. Just before the leader has exhausted himself, he pulls out of the lead spot and the next rider, who is more refreshed, takes the position for his team. I experienced the benefit of this when following behind my husband, and I admit that I was grateful to take the ‘back seat’! (I’m pretty sure he was happy to help me accomplish my feat as well!!)
Leaders Create Peer Groups
Just as the power of drafting shows the benefit of a team, leaders should identify individuals and peer groups where they can go for support. Sometimes, leaders need a sounding board and a group of trusted advisors outside of their own organization. These ‘peer groups’ can foster brainstorming, creative problem-solving or simply provide encouragement during a difficult time. The resulting camaraderie can help leaders to stay fresh and positive for their teams.
At first I was giggling at myself when I made the decision to bring my Blackberry along for my ride. I did it primarily to bring along my community of Twitter friends; thinking it might be fun to share my experience, and knowing that I am blessed with a group of supportive friends there. As it turns out, I tweeted about four times during the ride. Each time I picked up my Blackberry to send the latest update, I was amazed and overwhelmed by the outpouring of supportive tweets purposefully crafted to energize me in my endeavor. I literally felt as if I had a cheering section full of people who believed in me. For this peer group, in particular, I am profoundly grateful. The fuel was effective, indeed!
Leaders Celebrate the Win!
At the end of a long project, there is nothing that caps it off better than celebrating the win! Leaders focus on the positive efforts and events that got them to a successful completion. They celebrate the achievement with their team, and they give credit where credit is due. Of course, there may be things that could be improved for the next project, but a positive leader will focus on what went well and encourage those behaviors. They end the project by praising and rewarding the efforts – celebrating the victory!
As I neared the finish line of my event, I had a huge surge of adrenaline that pushed me over the line with one final sprint – a strong finish! (WOO HOO!!) Within seconds I was giving thanks and praise for a healthy body, a supportive husband and friends, and a picture-perfect day for our ride! We packed up our gear, drove home to our family and celebrated the accomplishment together…with hugs, kisses and chocolate mousse cake to top it all off!! What a fine way to end the day and my first century ride (and yes…I will be doing another!!)
Leaders – how are you stretching yourselves and your teams? What are some of your strategies for success? I encourage you to share your stories here to inspire others!
Erin Schreyer is President of Sagestone Partners, LLC. She is passionate about helping people and organizations achieve success and become their best. You can find more information at http://www.sagestone-partners.com.