Leadership Retreats Resources

A Lesson in Leadership from Mountain Biking

August 27, 2018
Lead Organizations
Rusty Chadwick

When I first started mountain biking, I had the privilege of learning from a top tier guide named Steve.

He was an expert at encouraging new riders and helping them develop the necessary skills to succeed. One phrase I remember him saying many times was, “left index, right thumb.” It may not seem like much; however, this phrase bailed me out many times.

The bike on which I learned had 27 gear combinations controlled by four shifting levers on the handlebars—two on the left and two on the right.

For those not familiar with mountain bike shifting, pressing the levers in one direction increases pedaling resistance for faster travel on flat surfaces and down hills; pressing or pulling in the opposite direction decreases resistance to make climbing up hills more manageable.

The levers operated by the left hand work in the opposite direction from those operated by the right, so learning correct shifting takes a little practice!

When learning from Steve, I would often hear him shout as we approached a steep hill, “left index, right thumb!” With those few words, he reminded me which levers to press in order to shift correctly and prepare for a successful climb.

Although I knew how to work the gears, hesitation caused by lack of experience and fatigue could have sabotaged my ride.

Steve knew shifting incorrectly at the base of a climb would stall momentum and force me to dismount and push my bike up the hill. He wanted to see me succeed, and his simple reminder in the heat of the moment prevented much frustration and discouragement in those early days of learning.

As my skills developed, and I became a guide for new riders, I could often be heard reminding them, “left index, right thumb.”

As leaders, perhaps our most important priority is finding ways to help those we lead succeed. As you lead, consider these four takeaways from the story above.

01. Cultivate the desire to help others succeed.

Take a minute and ask yourself why you are motivated to lead; answer honestly. Serving others and helping them reach their full potential should be at the top of the list.

02. Learn the unique needs of those you lead.

The reminder Steve repeated to those he trained was helpful because it met a real need in real time. It prevented those he led from being unnecessarily derailed. How well do you know the needs of the people you lead? Can you identify areas in which a simple reminder would be most effective? Perhaps you have a direct report with a tendency to get off topic during meetings.

You might have a team member who reacts poorly when his or her idea is questioned. Whatever the case, knowing the need will allow you come alongside in way that is truly impactful.

03. Keep it simple.

The magic in the phrase “left index, right thumb” was not the words themselves, but that it was simple, consistent, concise, and perfectly timed. It was not profound or inspirational, but it was specific and helpful. Helping others succeed doesn’t mean doing the work for them and it rarely requires complex, lengthy development plans.

Simple and consistent trumps complex and sporadic. What key words, phrases, reminders, rituals, or symbols could help you and those around you succeed?

04. Be willing to walk alongside.

Leaders can be tempted to communicate information or teach skills once, then move on with the expectation that others will immediately begin to apply the new knowledge. Most of the time, it is not that easy. Steve taught me to shift properly, then he supported me in real time.

The goal is to help the follower succeed; it is likely insufficient to teach once and walk away. Leading well is a long-term proposition; take time to provide ongoing support.

Great leaders want to help others succeed and they are willing to provide support toward that end. Is the success of those you lead a top priority for you? I hope so. I also hope you will find these four takeaways to be a valuable resource on your leadership journey.

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