Leadership Is Not Just About Being in the Lead

After training the last few months, I recently had the opportunity to participate in the Seattle to Portland (STP) bike ride. It was a great two-day event with over 10,000 bicyclists rolling away from the University of Washington in Seattle and riding 208 miles over one or two days to cross the finish line in Portland, Oregon. Even though biking can be, and often is, a solo sport, these rides allow for the opportunity to share the exhilarating experience with a group. Although my training schedule rarely lends itself to scheduling group rides, the group rides are the moments where I appreciate the sport and the people the most. There are valuable lessons in how bicyclists interact on the road and how much more we can accomplish #together than we can on our own. 

It was in the moment I crossed the finish line that I realized how great I felt, despite the overwhelming desire to get off the saddle. This is the 3rd time I have completed the ride, and in years past I could not walk for three days after the event without severe discomfort and the nagging thought that I should find another sport. So what was different? Was it the training?  Given my travel schedule and an active household with two teenagers, my training really had not changed much from the previous years.  

The difference, I realized later, was in the group. My team and I had spent the past two days riding together as a pack (or a peloton as we bikers like to call it). We shared the workload in a very meaningful way. There was a stretch of road as we neared the Oregon border that for about 18 miles we were riding into the wind. We covered the distance in about 45 minutes with an average speed of 24-25 miles per hour. This is at least five miles per hour faster than I ever could have done it alone.


Leadership is like Cycling


In a leadership role, know when to lead and when to draft.

It is well known, especially if you have watched the Tour de France, that two people or a whole peloton of riders who are drafting put out less energy than individuals who are going at it alone. In cycling lingo, drafting is riding closely behind another rider to take advantage of the windbreak or slipstream and use less energy. The leader, after establishing a compatible group and taking the helm for some time, slides to the back of the pack, rebuilds their strength and trusts those who move forward on the team to not only take the brunt of oncoming wind, but also make note of hazards on the road and alert the group to take action. Reenergized, the leader then makes their way to the front of the pack and resumes his role. Through drafting, the group can cover a much greater distance at a faster pace with a shared workload approach.

Much of the research also suggests that drafting not only helps the bicyclists behind the leader, but the leader gains an advantage as well. When I first started to manage a team of sales professionals, I tried to always take and hold the lead and did not realize the impact I could have by sliding back as in cycling and letting others temporarily jump to the front. As I think about my personal leadership style I now see the strength of our team, especially with so many brilliant people working for this company. I have learned drafting behind our experts makes both of us stronger, and together we can accomplish so much more then we could alone.


Look for opportunities to get to know your teams outside of work.

The other valuable lesson I learned on this ride is the importance of getting time to know your teams outside of work. Accomplishing a long ride together like this shifts your relationship focus away from day-to-day tasks and challenges. It allows you to deepen your understanding of others you may only know in the context of work and establish a more meaningful trust with your team.

In road racing, bicyclists group together in a pack or "peloton" or a pace line called an "echelon”. Cyclists who are part of the group riding together can save up to 40 percent in energy over a cyclist who is not drafting with the group. To be effective leading your teams consider the best times to be in front and when to take a turn being in the pack.