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Lessons from Cycling (and goats) … on Life and Leadership by Sue Knight

Sue Knight

Sue Knight

In the drama and crisis of Formula One, Wimbledon, and the World Cup football (well we can’t avoid analysing that again can we?) it might be easy to overlook that another gargantuan sporting event started last weekend.

Unless of course you are a cyclist (which I am) – in which case you will know that the Tour de France (or simply Le Tour) is an event of superhuman proportions with or without the drugs. I reach for the Nurofen just thinking about some of those mountains. No mere 90 mins with a break in the middle here – this is non stop effort every day for approximately 200km a day for 3 weeks on some of the kind of terrain that you struggle to drive up let alone cycle.

Although most people are familiar with the big names like Lance Armstrong (who says he is cycling Le Tour for the last time this year) many are unfamiliar with the remarkable team work required to succeed. If you have not watched any of Le Tour and are curious to do so – watch the team time trial and in the top teams you will see the best, almost choreographed, co-ordinated team work that you will see in any sport (although not in English football at the moment – sorry!). And teams need leaders … and in that particular event the practical leadership changes constantly although there is a named leader in every team. Everyone changes role constantly, taking a turn at the front to give a renewed energy then slipping to the back to allow another to take over. So what characterises the kind of leadership that provides the backbone for a team to win in such events?

Try cycling with a group or even with just one other person and you will find out. I recently returned from a cycling tour with my husband …in pure cyclists country round Mont Ventoux. (Note I said ‘round’ although we have cycled up this challenge of challenges in previous years). First you need to know how to follow if you want to benefit from the company of another/others. To benefit from the slip stream a follower needs to stay close – inches away from the rear tyre of the lead cyclist. To touch that tyre means an instant crash usually for the follower … so to follow that close requires trust and that trust is earned.

The lead cyclist sets the pace and the tactical direction and it is vital that the pace is uniform and rhythmical. He or she has to be alert to anything that might cause that pace to be changed, and if that should be the case they signal to the followers allowing time for them to prepare to adjust both physically and above all mentally. (I wonder about the effect of Fabio Cappello’s last minute announcements of the team format before a game – I guess we know the answer!). The followers have the same responsibility to signal that they are coming through if they are going to change position. All this requires forethought albeit split second forethought in some cases. The leader points to a change in surface or heaven forbid a pot hole (do Governments know what a risk they are putting to lives when they cut the road maintenance programmes I wonder).

Although this is all done at high speed, all change needs to be flagged so that all can move as one. And if and when the leader does stop they need to do so in a way that allows space for the following riders to do the same not leaving them on the steep rise of a hill for example while he or she comes to a halt on the plateau …that requires whole group thinking in the decision making. Leadership is the ability to ‘hold space’ for everyone in the team.

And finally one of the working assumptions in my field of NLP is that ‘The meaning of the communication is the effect’. In leadership terms this can be translated to ‘The quality of your leadership is measured by the character and performance of your followers’ (Maybe someone should tell that to Fabio – “The players were tired” or Raymond Domenech – coach to the French team  “Pas mon faute” or literally translated “Nothing to do with me guv!”)

One of our destination overnight resting places on our tour was at the top of a very steep tortuous climb through the mountains of the Ardeche famed for its goat’s cheese. A lot of goat’s cheese presupposes a lot of goats and they all seemed to join us in this moment leaping from the adjacent banks to accompany us on this climb to the top. Well I say ‘accompany us’ – my husband carved a path through the herd which I failed to follow fast enough only to find the sea of goats closing in like the Red Sea allowing only the chosen ones (or in this case chosen one) through. So while he pushed on at the front with the herd faithfully following I washed up at the back with one old Nanny goat by my side, udders almost dragging on the ground (hers not mine!). And in true cyclists style it was hard to tell who was leading whom .. but she and I made it to the top together. I admired that old goat she had an air of independence and a determined tenacity, going at her own pace .. not seemingly bothered by the distance between her and the main herd. Another one of those operating assumptions comes to mind – What we recognise about others is true about ourselves (excluding any physical characteristics of course!!).

I think about that old goat often.

Sue Knight is an international trainer and business consultant and author of the best selling book NLP at Work. She runs courses leading to certification in NLP –
Sue has been at the heart of the coaching and mentoring capability of many of The Academy for Chief Executives’ leaders throughout the organisation’s history and, as a speaker on using NLP in the workplace, has influenced and inspired many of the members, too.

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