16 Leadership Lessons from Riding a Motorcycle


16 Leadership Lessons from Riding a Motorcycle

  • Hold on to your vision, and make sure it is aligned with who you are.
  • You get what you pay attention to.
  • Slow into the curve, accelerate out.
  • Counter-steer.
  • Test assumptions continuously.
  • Anticipate, without fear.
  • Take ‘em somewhere.
  • Know how to make an emergency stop.
  • Practice makes fearless.
  • After a ride in the rain, dry your bike thoroughly.
  • Pair new riders with more experience ones, and give them plenty of encouragement.
  • Give ample notice before what happens next. Communicate clearly, and make sure you’re getting through.
  • Check your rear view often!
  • Prepare for the ride.
  • You don’t want blind followers.
  • Have Fun!

Lesson 1: Hold on to your vision, and make sure it is aligned with who you are.

Several years ago, my wife was cruising through the Farmington Flats here in Connecticut, when she noticed a female motorcycle rider who was obviously enjoying the wind in her face and the combo of open road freedom and fingertip-power that’s only available on motorcycle. As Sue tells the story, she wondered what it might feel like to have that kind of freedom, and decided that she would find out.

We were approaching middle age at the time, and Sue ran into her share of neigh-sayers.

"You're taking this up now?"

"Can you handle a heavy bike like that?" (How's someone less than 120-pounds going to throw around a 650-pound Harley?)

"It's dangerous." (Complete with statistics from some folks.)

Sue held to her vision. I was inspired. I told her: "Well, if you are going to take the motorcycle safety course and get a bike, I'd like to do that too."

She did. I did. Three friends of hers also did.

Sue stuck to her vision, but there's more than that: Sue values freedom. She desires new experiences. She appreciates nature and travel. Once she decides to do something, she won't rest until she does it. This vision was aligned with who Sue is. That alignment delivered to her the power and personal authority to continue in the face of naysayers, and realize her goal.

Hold to your vision, and make sure it is aligned with you. You can't fake the power of a vision you’re not aligned with. When you are aligned with a vision, you’re in a better place to influence others to engage. They’re more likely to “sign up” if you’re completely sold on the direction.

Lesson 2: You get what you pay attention to.

Experienced riders know that if they are in a curve, and they start looking at the side of the road, they'll drift. Nothing's worse than going a little too fast into a bend, only to find that you need more lean to make it through. It's a scary time, and it is tempting, oh so tempting, to look at the curb that you don't want to go over.

When you're turning a motorized missile, that's the last thing you want to do. You want to put you're eyeballs where you want to go, and make the necessary adjustments in speed and angle to ace the turn. We call this “picking a line through the curve.”

When leaders pay attention to success, and successful thinking, they're likely to get more of it. If they're always picking apart what's wrong, they'll get more of that. Pick your successful line, and pay attention to it. Ace the curve.

Lesson 3: Slow into the curve, accelerate out.

A bike handles best when it can accelerate out of the curve. Twisting up the power half-way through the turn stabilizes the feel of the bike, pressing the tires harder into the road as the bike leans, and helping to bring the bike up from its lean angle. Slowing before the curve prepares the bike and rider to properly negotiate the turn, and leaves "room" to apply the appropriate amount of throttle on the way out, so all goes smoothly.

Leaders can take appropriate time for preparation before change, so that there's stability through transition, and the team can accelerate at the right time to make a clean, decisive, turn.

Lesson 4: Counter-steer.

I can always pick out a rider who hasn't yet learned to counter-steer because of the way they are "fighting" their bike into a lane change or a turn.

Bikes want to stay upright and go straight once they are in motion. To turn them, you can either muscle them into a lean with your weight, or you can counter-steer with a gentle, momentary push of the handlebars in the opposite direction from the direction you're turning.

When you do the latter, the bike will take you into a lean, and the turn. Essentially, you’re using the bike’s weight and momentum to the advantage of both bike and rider, rather than fighting through the situation.

Leaders: “counter-steer” by "going with the team" long enough to hear their concerns, before coaching them toward the changes that are in the highest interest of all. As an alternative to muscling the team through a challenge, a little empathy and earnest listening before making the change gives an opportunity for the team to begin a turn on their own—saving you energy and increasing the chance of success.

Lesson 5: Test assumptions continuously.

My one and only motorcycle collision came when I assumed that my brother-in-law was rolling on through a yield—when in fact he had stopped dead—and I ran dead into him.

Thinking he was rolling on, I had turned my head for a head-check of traffic for one-second, and that was all it took to find out the hard way that my original assumption was incorrect.

Had I paid attention all the way through the process, testing my assumption on the way, I could have avoided the mishap. Even if my original assumption was correct, I could have head-checked after he rolled on. If it wasn't correct, I would have had a moment to stop before the fender-bender.

Leaders: we’re often tempted into assumption because the alternative takes more time and energy, but continuing to test our assumptions will could save us costly errors.

Lesson 6: Anticipate without fear.

So much about riding a motorcycle is anticipation. We riders benefit by thinking at least 12-seconds ahead of our wheels, at whatever speed we're at. We need to keep at least 2-seconds behind the bike in front of us, and anticipate their moves. We need to anticipate obstacles and hazards around curves; drivers that don't see us popping out of driveways and parking lots; lane-changers that don't see us... the list goes on.

But the way we look ahead is more like the chess-player's anticipation, than a soldier's wariness. We're focused and watchful. Relaxed but vigilant. We look for small signs, like whether a car driver's head is turned toward us, or if car brake lights up ahead flash as they around a turn that we're approaching.

When I'm leading, and we are approaching an intersection, I try to pace the team so that we make the light, rolling through just as it turns green, or while it's green. This saves us “feet down” and makes for fewer stops and the efficiency that comes with that.

Leaders can watch for small signs, too, anticipating difficulties and clearing the way for their charges before things get hairy, or the pace is slowed.

Lesson 7: Take ‘em somewhere.

I’m often asked to lead a group of riders through the countryside, and the assumption is that I will plan a fun ride. The other motorcyclists are confident in their expectation, because from the first time it was my turn to lead a ride, I did my best to search out roads the group hadn’t traveled before, and ones that were relatively unknown, but attractive, challenging, and well worth the time.

When you take folks somewhere they haven’t been before, and they feel it was worthwhile trip, they’ll line up behind you again and again. If you disappoint now and again (I have), but you have an overall track record of progress, your team will forgive you.

Leaders, take your team somewhere that feels like progress and make it worth their while.

Lesson 8: Know how to make an emergency stop.

Motorcycles only have two wheels to grip the road in a braking situation. Too much braking in back or front can mean strange handling and even deadly results on slippery roads. The best drivers learn their brakes and learn to distribute braking according to conditions.

Emergency stops are special. Every bike handles differently under hard braking, and the first thing I do when I get a new bike, is take it to a parking lot to practice, and see how the bike feels and behaves when I do it. This tells me a lot about the center of gravity of the bike, and what I can do with it in normal, as well as in evasive, driving.

Leaders: if you have to make a “hard stop” with your team, and change direction quickly, do you know how they will respond?

Lesson 9: Practice Makes Fearless.

There are a few riders in our regular group who hate, and I mean hate making u-turns.

Turning a long-wheelbase Harley-Davidson cruiser feels risky at low-speed and in tight quarters, and I don’t get many smiles from the u-turn averse group when I make an occasional “directional error.”

But for those of us who are good at doing u-turns, they’re not a problem. We just make ‘em, and off we go...

What’s the difference?


When you are good at something, you actually don’t mind testing your skills once in a while, or at the very least, it isn’t something to fret about. In fact, most folks love to do stuff they’re good at.

Leaders: have all team members practiced through the uncomfortable? Can they talk to project sponsors directly and honestly? Can they report late milestones proactively? Can they ask for help when they need it? Can they give a confident, engaging presentation in to a room peers or sponsors?

Lesson 10: After a ride in the rain, dry your bike thoroughly.

Riding in the rain, even with the best rain gear, can prove challenging and uncomfortable. Even when we don’t mind, we have to care for our bikes after the run.

Rainwater left on bikes can play havoc by inviting interaction between the different metals used to construct one. The net result: corrosion.

After a rain ride, we need to blow dry and wipe down every inch of our bike. We don’t want hidden water starting rot that will lead to worse problems later.

Leaders: after a tough project or difficult change, it’s good idea to make sure there are no festering issues, or false harmonies in place. Diligence and follow-up after the “ride” through change can prevent larger problems later.

Lesson 11: Pair new riders with more experience ones, and encourage them often.

Bringing along new riders in the group is always challenging. The group wants to go, but we can’t push new riders too far past where they’re comfortable.

We always pair new riders with someone very experienced as the closest bike behind them, and often they’ll ride just behind the lead bike. This way we keep an eye on them, they have the influence of experienced riders close by, and the new riders get plenty of encouragement along the way.

When I’m leading, I take note of turns they make well, and good riding decisions, and call them out. We all heap on the appreciation. We bring our new riders along more quickly this way, and everyone has more fun, sooner.

Leaders: get your new people engaged with your best and most trusted veterans. Notice them, and encourage them often.

Lesson 12: Give ample notice before what happens next. Communicate clearly, and make sure you’re getting through.

When I lead a group of motorcyclists, especially when it includes more than six riders, I like to go over a group of hand-signals that I’ll use on the ride—before we get rolling.

  • Fuel/Crises of confidence: point at your gas tank.
  • Turn signals
  • Slow signal
  • Single file signal
  • Hazard signal
  • Instructions to flick high-beams when you need to get my attention.

You can’t hear a horn coming from 8 bikes back when you have ear plugs in and are doing 75 on an interstate. Not everyone pays attention to blinkers, and a left arm held up with two fingers pointed is visible from 10 bikes or more behind and says clearly that we’re about to make a right hand turn, or take the next exit.

Sudden changes of plan at speed are not welcome, and are often dangerous.

Leaders: make sure your people know where you want to take them ahead of time, and that they understand your signals, and can hear them over the din.

Lesson 13: Check your rear view often!

Experienced safe motorcyclists understand that what they don’t see can kill them.

Therefore, we check our mirrors on average every 2-5 seconds. This way we know what’s going on in our environment.

Is a rider in our group having difficulty? Is that 18-wheeler behind me gonna slow down for this red light? Is the sun getting low at my back, so that I’m nearly invisible to oncoming traffic?

Leaders: check your external environmental, and internal political influences, often.

Lesson 14: Prepare for the ride.

Getting on a bike when you are emotionally distraught, or distracted, is a very bad idea. So is heading off on a bike before doing a walk-around and routine check of basic systems. It’s just two wheels, and your attention span, that come between you and the pavement or worse.
Good riders take a moment to collect themselves and get their head in the game before firing up the ignition. And contingency plans can turn a bust into a workable alternative.

Leaders: Get your head in the game (emotionally) before communicating or kicking off any program. If you need help with this, reach out. Everyone can sense a leader who is not all-in. You don’t want to be that kind of boss. Well begun is half done.

Lesson 15: You don’t want blind followers!

I remember a day when I was leading a pack, and a brand new rider tried to make a left turn right behind me and almost into an oncoming car. I had time to make the turn, and planned on stopping to wait for the rest of the group (a van had stopped to let us go, but a car behind it had different ideas… I saw it at the last second).

The more experienced riders had stopped when they saw what happened. After that experience I knew that part of working with new riders was to let them know that they are responsible for their own safety, and to never, ever, blindly follow the leader.

Leaders: we don’t want blind followers, and we need to make sure that our newer team members understand that we rely on them for perspective and self-accountability.

Lesson 16: Have Fun!

Even with the attention and work required to keep motorcycles running well, and keep ourselves riding safely, riding is a ball of fun. We wouldn’t trade that fun for anything less. We see the occasional ride in the rain, the maintenance, the required attention and focus, as all part of what we gladly invest for the joy and freedom of riding.

Leaders: this is the target emotional level for any team: energized and willing to negotiate the ups and downs necessary to make progress toward a goal that everyone believes in and wants to make happen. We want a team that’s enjoying the process, with a growth-mindset and positive expectation—believing that the destinations are worth the ride.

Do you ride? Regardless, do you see another leadership lesson we could take from motorcycling?

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