5 Timeless Leadership Lessons From My Bike-Rides

May 23, 2018 1 Min Read

Ride it like Albert Einstein!


What can the act of riding a bicycle possibly teach us about leading well? Growing up in Taiping, Perak, a small and unassuming town, my bicycle was my main mode of transportation.

I would ride to school, to church, to drop in on my “girl friends” (no, not something we would share with our parents – at that time), to the casual market, to tuition, and, to paraphrase John F Kennedy, sometimes for no other reason than simply to enjoy the pleasures of a bike ride.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, does Albert Einstein not appear to be simply having a pleasurable and joyful time on his bike?

For Einstein, however, it was more than that. He shared that he thought about the theory of relativity while riding his bicycle. That was his “aha” moment!

So, there is more in riding a bicycle that meets the eye! Discoveries can be made. Lessons can be learnt.

Collected under five lessons, allow me to share 13 critical sub-lessons. How’s that for a baker’s dozen?

Lesson #1: Keep left hand on left handle and right hand on right handle

I recall the urge to sometimes ride my bike hands-free – somehow there was a feeling of freedom in doing something like that!

“Look Ma, no hands!” That was more like boasting! But that wasn’t so bad when compared to what I attempted next.

I recall my one and only attempt to ride my bike by criss-crossing my hands, namely, placing my right hand on the left handle of the bike and my left hand on the right handle! That was not a smart thing to do.

It fact, it was a dumb thing to do. It was even dumber when I started to pedal faster while attempting this feat – somehow believing that hanging on tightly and pedaling faster would keep me in balance.

I mean, who did I think I was? Evel Knievel? Jackie Chan? Harry Houdini?

Yes, I crashed! Fortunately, I walked away – rather wobbly – with only a few bad gashes and a dislocated left hand. Was I wearing a helmet? Nope! And, I cannot recall the sorry state of my bike!

The only sympathy I got from my mom was a stern: “Serves you right, you idiot!”

Lessons learnt

  • When leading, keep left hand on left handle and right hand on right handle. Ignore this principle and suffer the consequences. Have you ever felt like you were leading with your hands criss-crossed? What were the results?
  • When you find yourselves in ‘unbalanced times’, or when ‘things’ aren’t going as well as you want it to go, slow down. The temptation might be to try harder. But the pattern is clear: The harder you try and the faster you pedal, the harder and faster you will fall. What’s your choice?
  • Connected to the second lesson above, when you find yourselves in troubling times, “let go”. I simply held on tightly for dear life when I made a bad choice – believing that the more tightly I held on to the handles, I might avoid falling! My mom was correct in her assessment of me: “you idiot!” Gee Mom… thanks! But I cannot blame her for her assessment. At worst, it was my dumb choice, but at best, it was a life lesson! What do you need to ‘let go’ in your troubling times?

Lesson #2: Enjoy & respect the companionship

I recall the times when I would ride my bicycle with two of my favourite teachers, who were La Salle Brothers – Bro. John D’Cruz and Bro. Matthew Bay. They were both teaching at St. George’s Institution in Taiping.

We would simply hop on our bikes and ride around the outskirts of the town, for no other reason than simply to enjoy the ride and the camaraderie.

We would usually give ourselves about 90 minutes for our bicycle rides. Yes, we did create a ‘boundary’. We were not going to ride endlessly!

At the same time, there was no ‘destination’ in the conventional sense of that term. It was not as if we were going from “here” to “there”. In our bike rides, our journey was our destination.

Lessons learnt

  • In our very busy and fast-moving world, do you feel like you are simply caught up in “getting there” (wherever ‘there’ is) quicker? Part of the challenge in times like these is that we get “caught up” in producing our products faster than our competition. While that may be necessary, we sometimes forget to enjoy the process. It is important to note that it is not a question of one (process) at the expense of the other (product). It is to focus on both. This was the “informal education” I received from our La Sallian brothers.
  • Another lesson that they were teaching me is that we were united in the journey. Our journeying through our bicycle rides grew us closer together. We didn’t relate to each other as ‘teachers’ and ‘student’ but rather as companions in a common journey.

Imagine orienting to those who have been called to lead as “companions” rather than as “subordinates” or “followers?” As companions, you are friends, confidants, and colleagues. You are in an egalitarian relationship, rather than in a hierarchical or controlling relationship with each other.

As colleagues and confidants, you appreciate and celebrate the different gifts that each bring to the table. Therein lies the joy of being together in a journey.

  • In your companion-relationship with each other, be publicly clear on your boundaries. Make them explicitly known. There are some ways you speak and behave with each other. Respecting those boundaries enhances your relationship. Cross the lines of those agreed-upon boundaries and you lose respect and trust.

READ: The Unusual Lessons I Learnt Studying Albert Einstein

Lesson #3: Building resilience

Do you remember the times when your mom or dad held the seat of your bike as you were learning how to ride a bike?

For me, I remember there were no such things as “training wheels”. Our ability to ride our bikes on our own was directly related to mom or dad holding and “letting go” (there it is again!) of the bicycle seat.

As a dad who also did the same thing for his children, I knew that letting go meant risking a fall. And my daughters did fall. That was a painful experience.

However, they did get up; brush the dirt away; dad did kiss the “boo-boos” to make them feel better – and off they went again… they did not give up.

They fell, they got up, they tried again, and eventually they learnt to ride on their own.

Lessons learnt

  • Risking a fall is a way to build or teach resilience. No parent would want their children to fall. No leader would want their companies “to fall”. However, without such an experience, we will not learn the art of bouncing back from a fall. There is strength in that experience.

While we don’t intentionally wish for a fall, falling is an opportunity to learn.

Our real failures are when we:

– fail to learn from our falls.

– choose not to get up and try again.

– develop defeatist attitudes when we fall.

Would you agree?

  • As you “let go” for the sake of independence and resilience, the equation of “seeing is believing” is now switched to “believing is seeing”. As a parent, I needed to believe that my children can ride the bikes on their own. My “letting go” is a symbol of my acting on my belief.

In doing so, I now experience my belief as it comes to fruition. If I didn’t believe, and if I didn’t act on my belief (holding on and letting go), I’ll not see my children ride on their own.

What are you holding on to so tightly, that you are denying yourself the opportunity to grow and flourish? How can the metaphor of “seeing is believing” be preventing you from moving ahead?

Lesson #4: Read the signs

Allow me to roll the clock a few years ahead and transport you to Canada. I recall being so eager to ride to Bird’s Hills Provincial Park from Winnipeg and back.

Mind you, the park is about 40km away. I was so determined that I chose to ignore the weatherman’s forecast.

I rationalised: “They are wrong 80% of the time anyway!”

And yes, you guessed right! The skies opened up when I was barely 30 minutes out of the city, with a very heavy downpour and with it, strong head-winds (strong-winds are common in our prairie town!).

It was as if the Aztec rain-god, Tlaloc, and Chac, the Mayan rain-god were admonishing me: “How dare you, crazy and mere mortal, not listen to my weatherman!”

I was convinced that they were both out to get me! “Of all times, the weatherman had to be right!” Those were my internal conversations.

To pour more water to an already drenched cyclist, I had to share the highway with motorists and truckers for about 15km. So, not only was I drenched from the rain, I was also rudely splashed by cars and trucks that went by!

It appeared as if they were having fun splashing and soaking me with dirty rain water and all the grit that came with it!

“Am I in a Revenge of the Weatherman movie?” There was my internal conversation – again!

Lessons learnt

  • Leading well is not all about what you want, no matter how eager and determined you may be. Rationalisations will only get you so far. You also need to pay attention and read the signs. What may those signs be telling you? Ignore your signs – like I did – at your own peril!
  • When you find yourself in the middle of your “storm”, pay attention to your internal conversations. Your internal conversations can be both inspiring and downright depressing. They can lift your spirits and they can tear you down like jackals. What’s your choice?
  • When you find others in the middle of their “storm”, you can drench them with more dirty water. You can, for example, blame them for not reading the signs, and punish them by splashing dirty water, and laugh at them as you zip past them, while remaining comfortably dry in your vehicle. How inspiring is that? No – no need to answer that because it was a rhetorical question.

Lesson #5: Your learning stays with you

There is an amazing truth about riding a bicycle. No matter how long you have been away from riding a bicycle, as soon as you get on it, you ride it well.

The art of cycling returns to you, even after a long absence, as naturally as you breathe air. Wouldn’t you agree?

You may have stayed away from riding a bicycle, as you may now be driving a Ferrari, but it has not moved away from you. It continues to reside in you and is always waiting for you to return to it… if you choose.

Lessons learnt

  • Lessons learnt from riding a bicycle are like values. While we may have violated some age-old values, while we may have stayed away from living our values, they continue to reside in us. They patiently wait for us to reconnect with them and live them. As soon as we choose to reconnect, our values flourish and guide us through our decisions.
  • Lessons learnt through the art of riding a bicycle are timeless. No matter what may be confronting you in the ‘here and now’, the experience of riding a bicycle (as a metaphor) can help you deal with your “events” in ways that you may not have imagined. Give it a try!

So, get back on your bicycles, literally or metaphorically, enjoy the ride and enjoy the learning!

Concluding thought

Today, I am in the process of collecting bicycle riding experiences/stories as I write on this subject of “Leading Well” through the metaphor of bike-rides. If you have your bicycle-riding experiences that you would like to share with me, I invite you to do so. You will definitely add a unique flavour and another perspective on this work that we call “leadership.”


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Tags: Emerging Leadership

Malaysian-born Dr Stan is currently an Associate Professor, at Baker College, Centre for Graduate Studies, in Flint, Michigan. As a scholar-practitioner in the discipline of leadership studies, he brings over 25 years of experience both in the public sector and in higher education.

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