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Life Lessons from the Trail #7: Leadership Is About Helping People Succeed

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

Oscar joined a recent Active and Healthy Come and Try Mountain Biking program having never ridden on the trails before. He's been doing the course on an e-bike that's too big for him and is very heavy - making the experience challenging.

My coaching programs and sessions range from helping experienced riders how to ride a little bit better all the way down to showing adults and children who have never ridden off road before how to ride safely and confidently on the trails. As you'd expect, I end up dealing with riders with a very wide range of skills, capability and attitude. And from time to time, I'll come across students who on the surface, might seem to be better off pursuing another activity.

One of my recent classes included Oscar, a young lad who had never been on the trails and didn't have his own mountain bike. His father ended up hiring e-bikes for himself and Oscar from me, and so I put Oscar on the smallest e-bike I had in the garage, which still ended up being a fraction too big for him. And if you're thinking that being on an electric mountain bike as your first experience mountain biking would make it more awesome, that isn't necessarily the case. For Oscar who was a somewhat nervous rider on the tarmac, taking on a 20kg bike that has the potential to run away from you can make it difficult to handle.

Throughout the first session, Oscar struggled to come to grips with riding the e-bike, let alone focusing on some of the skills that I was attempting to teach the group of ten during the session. The extra power of the e-bike, even on its lowest power setting, meant that when he pedalled it would leap forward. This seemed to trigger Oscar's survival instinct, which would involve stopping the bike from accelerating by jamming on the breaks. Every time he did that, he would end up on a 20kg bike that was no longer balanced - which meant that the bike would fall over, sometimes taking Oscar with it.

In situations when you have to help many people, it can be easy to decide to give up those that are struggling and focus on the people that are doing well. It's the easier choice, but not necessarily the right one.

Despite a significant amount of encouragement and coaxing to not slamming on the brakes, Oscar continued to do exactly that and in doing so, I could see any confidence he had started with disappearing. The one time he did keep his fingers off the brakes was naturally the one time where he needed to keep the bike under control, accelerating down a slope to the point where I had to intercept him. And although this did result in a minor crash, it wasn't a high speed one.

In my day job, I've been known to explain to the managers in my team the difference between capability and potential, and how easy it is to confuse the two. A source of frustration for many leaders is when they see the potential in a person they're leading, but instead of developing that potential, they mistake it for a capability that their charge should have in the here and now. Taking that a step further, I see other "leaders" take a step further and begin to criticise the short comings of people, citing them as not able to do what's expected of them. It would have been pretty easy to make the same assessment of Oscar.

But identifying potential and understanding how that can be transformed into capability is the true job of a coach, and in my opinion of a real leader - because fundamentally as a coach you have to lead people to change behaviours and learn new skills to be better. In the case of Oscar, understanding whether he had the potential to be better was easy. No matter how many times he dropped the e-bike which included a reasonably scary fall, and despite being unable to hide a look of fear every time his feet took to the pedals, he just kept trying. And when someone doesn't give up - well, in my book being determined is all I need to help someone overcome their fears.

As we progressed through the second session, helping Oscar subtly build up his confidence began to lead him to try more difficult things on the bike. I think I even saw him smile a few times!

Oscar's first ride on the trails probably wasn't the greatest experience. He focused on trying to get comfortable with riding short sections of the trails, stopping every time a tree got close or a trail feature caught his eye. But at the end of the first session, I managed to have a quick discussion with him which revolved around fear and mental resilience. The most encouraging part of that conversation was that Oscar himself realised that what was holding him back were the fears that he had in his head, and he clearly wanted to overcome them.

Fast forward to the second session and I'm going to say that when Oscar and his father came to grab the bike from me, he looked even more petrified than the first week. Through the course of the second session, with a little bit more encouragement and some specific direction to continue to build up his confidence, Oscar began to attempt more difficult manoeuvres. And by the time the second session had finished, he had successfully negotiated a number of mountain bike trails, telling his father how much fun he was having.

I have no doubt in my mind that having discovered how to overcome his fear of riding on the trails, Oscar will go onto enjoy mountain biking in general. Even more important than being able to ride is the actual process that Oscar worked through to beat his fear of falling off a mountain bike. Having done that once in circumstances that he found challenging, he will be able to take that particular lesson of conquering a fear to help him succeed in other areas of his life. And that's the real job of a coach, a leader - guiding someone to success.

Ben is a student from years past who I remember was as nervous as Oscar when he first started riding out on the trails. When you focus on guiding people to succeed, a lot of possibilities open up.

Fundamentally, it's a pretty straight forward to learn the theory of any subject, mountain biking included. Today's access to information through the Internet means that anyone can become a text book expert about anything. And all too often, I've seen that interpreted as a leadership of sorts - "thought leadership" I think is the term. But in my mind, leadership is about people. While anyone can spit out theories about anything, that doesn't mean people are automatically going to listen and follow said thought bubbles. Fundamentally, the actual skill of leadership is taking action, often in very subtle ways to guide the people in their charge to succeed in the areas that they need to deliver an outcome in. It's about identifying the areas that people need to improve in, and rather than criticising their shortcomings, true leadership is about figuring out what people need to help them succeed. At least in my humble opinion.

But then again, what do I know? I'm just a guy that tries to help people be better on bikes... and maybe in other areas too .

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