5 Leadership Lessons from a Century Ride

img_20140619_123529-2This year I participated in my first Century Ride – an event where you ride your bicycle 100 kilometers or 100 miles in a day. In my case, I rode 100 kms (62 miles) from Toronto to Barrie, Ontario on Saturday and another 100 kms to return to Toronto on Sunday. 

Let me set the stage. Weather both days was sunny and hot – 30oC (86oF) with a “feels like” temperature of 35oC (95oF) due to the humidity. Terrain was initially flat with small inclines in the city, eventually increasing (in both frequency and elevation) to undulating hills as we progressed through Schomburg, West Gwillimbury and Innisfil farm country before reaching Barrie. The return trip meant we faced those same hills during the first 50kms of the ride yet thankfully it seemed the descents were longer and most (though not all) of the hills relatively modest compared to the journey into Barrie. I ride a Fuji hybrid bike – not a sleek road bike. No clip shoes. And I like riding with a pannier to hold all my emergency supplies – snacks, extra water, sun lotion, hand-sanitizer, Kleenex, first aid supplies, spare tube and pump, wallet, cell phone…etc.

It was a challenging ride to complete for reasons beyond the extreme heat and hilly terrain. And the more I thought about the experience, the more I realized it was very similar to the challenges leaders like you and I face each time we embark on a new initiative or project. Let me share the five leadership lessons I took from this experience with you.

  1. Do Your Homework & Prepare

Before embarking on something new, it pays do your homework and prepare accordingly.

While I prepared for this event by riding on consecutive days and increasing my distance over time – from 30 km to 50 km to 100 km – it was on relatively flat terrain. In hindsight, I should have gone off my usual trail to find hilly routes that better simulated what I would encounter on the Toronto to Barrie ride. I might also have reached out to the ride organizers to ask them how best to prepare for this ride.

If you are undertaking a new project or initiative, find people who have done similar projects within or outside your organization or industry. Ask them what they did to get ready, what roadblocks they encountered and what they would do differently if they had to do it over. Look for opportunities to practice on smaller aspects of the project before going all in on a significant component.

  1. Rally a team – Don’t go it alone!

While no one else could ride my bike for me, it didn’t mean I was doing the century rides alone. Beyond my initial ‘team’ of three, we connected with other riders. Two riders led the group and someone else followed the group to ensure no one got left behind. Everyone hollered out or signaled hazards and cheered one another on when the going got tough and fatigue started to kick in.

Even if you are responsible for specific pieces of a project, it doesn’t mean you have to face them alone. Bounce ideas off of other team members or a trusted colleague who isn’t even connected with the project. Ask people to review your work and comment on drafts or prototypes. Share your challenges and successes with others – and learn from those who have ‘been there, done that’.

  1. Know your limits and pace yourself – Think marathon not sprint

Riding with others had its advantages. It also had several disadvantages. These were semi-serious cyclists with light weight road bikes and clip shoes – two significant differences that added speed and efficiency to their riding output compared to me and my hybrid bike. Keeping up to their pace was relatively easy early on in the ride. It got increasingly more challenging as the day wore on.

Originally we planned to stop at the 50 km mark for a quick lunch break. An unanticipated detour derailed those plans and people opted to push on. This took its toll on me as I rely on a mix of short and longer breaks to manage back strain during extended rides. Needless to say, I learned my lesson the hard way on day one and persuaded our group of three to do our own thing for the return journey.

While it is important to challenge yourself and leverage the strengths of others, you need to know and respect your limits so as not to jeopardize your chance for success.

Which leads to the next lesson learned…

  1. Read the terrain and make strategic adjustments

Veteran cyclists have learned to evaluate the challenges of the terrain against their physical capacity and then employ strategies to minimize effort and maximize output. They do this by wisely building momentum on the flat stretches before a hill and strategically down-shifting to lower gears as they ascend the hill. When dealing with strong winds, they take turns drafting behind stronger team members. They carry only what is absolutely necessary – extra weight becomes dead weight in challenging conditions.

Over the two days, I became better at assessing the terrain in relation to my capabilities and adjusted my riding strategies accordingly. I ditched the pannier on day two, pushed harder on the flats before a hill and altered my gear shifting to better match my circumstances and energy levels. Perhaps more importantly, I rode at my own pace and didn’t hesitate to get off my bike and walk a hill I knew would defeat me regardless of my best efforts.

Wise leaders have learned similar strategies for managing projects and the teams that execute those projects. A one-size-fits-all approach rarely works and even the best strategies need to adapt to an ever-changing business context.

And not surprisingly, the final leadership lesson that was reinforced during the Century rides…

  1. Reward success – Celebrate your accomplishments

While it’s not always feasible to celebrate in the moment, honouring the effort as well as the accomplishments deepens one’s appreciation of the experience regardless of the final outcome. The support team for the ride cheered cyclists onward at each rest stop and surprised us with M&Ms alongside the healthier fruit and nut snacks. During the ride we acknowledged our progress (the 25, 50 and 75 km milestones). Riders rewarded themselves at dinner with indulgences like beer or wine and double (sometimes triple) helpings of dessert! The organizers even handed out a few door prizes!

High performing teams know the importance of celebrating the small wins throughout a project as well as the big win upon project completion. Effective leaders know it is important to acknowledge individual as well as team success in ways that align with the values of those being rewarded.

While my small team of three did not break any time records, we were pleased we conquered the challenges we faced and completed the ride. And I was reminded once again that you don’t always need to be in a leadership position to learn some important leadership lessons. You just need the willingness to reflect on your life experiences and look for those meaningful connections.

What ordinary experience have you had that revealed an important leadership lesson to you? Please share it in the comments space below.

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