Cycling’s Lessons for Government Leaders

Whether it's about pedaling or public administration, the challenges are much the same.
September 23, 2015
By Stacy Wall Schweikhart  |  Contributor
Kettering, Ohio's community information manager

I'm a road cyclist, and if the trends are any indicator, the 76 percent growth in the number of enthusiasts for the sport since 2012 means that many of my local-government comrades are hitting the pedals too. Whether churning the hills on the back roads in the Midwest or cruising scenic coastal routes, the principles of road cycling offer comparative guidance for the particular challenges of leadership in government.

Perhaps if you aren't a cyclist you have a different hobby, exercise regimen or avocation. Lessons for leadership can be found in most any pastime and, regardless of the last time you were on a bike, I hope you can appreciate what I learned from mine:

Find Your gear...: A strong cyclist's best friends are padded bike shorts and reliable gears. I have a favorite gear, one that just feels natural for my speed and cadence. There are times when I could, and probably should, use a lower gear, but I like the feel of a little resistance. Not coincidentally, this statement also describes my work attributes. Finding and getting comfortable with your natural professional gear is critical.

... But be ready to shift: My cycling dream would be to cruise my entire ride in my comfortable, favorite gear. But sometimes, as a result of the incline or my stamina, that trusted gear becomes uncomfortable. Though I often resist, I know that this is a sign that it is time to shift gears. Certainly those in government leadership have experienced both occasions of burdensome resistance and of the sensation of spinning wheels yet getting nowhere. Both cases are clear indicators that it is time to shift. Back off the resistance, even temporarily, to allow for easing of progress. Or dig in harder, perhaps for just a while, to gain traction.

Anticipate obstacles: Riding on the road means that inevitably there will be obstacles. It may be small debris or it may be a monster pothole. You have to learn to keep your eyes up and make adjustments for what lies ahead. For a cyclist, this becomes second nature, yet in our daily government leadership it is something that can get lost amid the pressures of day-to-day administration. Often we don't see those avoidable obstacles because we don't take a moment to look ahead.

Use the terrain: When I'm out on a ride, there is still a part of me that panics when I see rolling terrain. Even if I've ridden the hill hundreds of times and know I've got what it takes to make it up the incline, the memory of the physical and mental challenge can be daunting. How many of us do the same thing when we know we are headed up a hill with a professional initiative? Recently I've started to focus not on the climb but on the coast that follows on the downside. What if we focus our professional energy not on the tough hill but on how we will use the downhill momentum to propel us in to the next challenge?

Show courtesy: I remember the first time I was in a peloton - a group of cyclists riding together -- and heard "Car up." Within moments a car zoomed past us heading the opposite direction. Cyclists use alerts like "car up," "car back" "on your left" and "slowing" to communicate with each other about changes in the environment. On the road, this communication is a responsibility and an expected courtesy. Do we all have the same level of commitment to communicating oncoming hazards within our government teams?

Hold your line: When riding, especially in a large peloton, you have to be keenly aware of how your movements impact others. Your well-being and the well-being of those around you depend on maintaining a consistent pace, holding your line without swerving, and not overcorrecting for obstacles. A consistent, reliable pace and direction is equally important in government leadership. Failure to hold your line will impact the working relationship you enjoy with your team, your elected officials and your constituents.

Survive the fall: When you take a spill -- and on the road or in your leadership role you will -- the old adage stands true: You just have to get up and keep riding. Falls are ugly. And scary. Learning to get up gracefully and admit mistakes that led to the fall are what makes you a stronger cyclist and a better leader.

In government as in cycling, there will be amazing highs and some real battles along the way. Change gears when you need to. Keep your head up. Stay steady. Keep pedaling and enjoy the ride.