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Iron Sharpens Iron: Part One, How Leadership is Like Riding a Motorcycle

Over the course of my career, I’ve observed countless forms of leadership that range from inspiring to dispiriting. But leadership isn’t a skill learned only in boardrooms and office buildings.

In this part one of a two-part blog, I’ll explore the similarities between leadership and sport. While there is a long list of ‘sports’ that can be attributed to leadership, I’m making a case for two that share a commonality: iron.

Piqued your interest?

First off, I’d like to compare leadership on an iron horse (more commonly known as the motorcycle) to leadership in business. Then next time, we’ll delve into the ultimate triathlon, The IRONMAN.

For most, a sport is deeply rooted in competition, perseverance, enjoyment, with a dash of personal gain.

Motorcycle riding, whether professionally or just passionately, is both sport and hobby. And leadership is essential gear.

The topic of drawing comparisons of motorcycles to life was deftly illustrated in the fictional and somewhat autobiographical novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A profoundly captivating story on values, ethics, mindsets, and philosophy.

To me, the parallels of leadership and motorcycle riding are intrinsically linked. After thousands of miles on the back of a motorcycle and over years of traveling the road, I’ve observed not just good, but great leadership.

“It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.” – Robert M. Pirsig

Lead by Example

Whether riding solo or as part of a group you need to own the journey. Particularly, when on group rides, one person is appointed “Road Captain.” The decisions and actions you take have far-reaching consequences.

A leader has an enormous responsibility, not only for his/her own well-being, but of those around them. Simply put – walk the walk, walk the talk, and do what you say you are going to do. As a leader, part of your job is to inspire the people around you to push themselves – and, in turn, the company – to greatness. To do this, you must show them the way by doing it yourself.

Think Fast. Don’t Overreact

Pivoting and problem solving come with the territory. Much like the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, illustrates that you need to have the capacity to think both fast: instinctive and emotional and slow: deliberative and logical. I’d add this is where as a leader, you also need a high EQ.

Those high in Emotional Intelligence have been proven to be exceptional leaders. The key is not to remove emotions from our decision-making process or to pursue some robotic form of existence. Instead, you must learn to deal with those emotions in a productive way. This more than ever is essential when dealing with crises or problem-solving.
When obstacles suddenly appear in your path, think.

No Trouble with the Curve

Riding switchbacks is one of the most exhilarating [white-knuckle] experiences when it comes to motorcycle riding. With each twist and turn you see the landscape around you unfold in different and unexpected ways.

In leadership, navigating switchbacks are a given. Having the ability and agility to handle the curves as they come is what sets a leader apart from the pack. It is not possible to predict the outcome of decisions you make regardless of all the hours of mapping and planning that you’ve done.

The upside of navigating the turns: an adrenaline rush. A natural high, a sense of accomplishment, and as my husband (a skilled motorcyclist and business leader) often remarks, “keeps my mind sharp.”

Have a 6th Sense

I like to look at ways where an experience can incorporate as much of the five senses as possible. Well, I can assure you that riding a motorcycle you will see, smell, hear, taste, and touch e v e r y t h i n g. That is the thrill of truly feeling alive.

As a leader, it is equally as important to tap into all your five senses as well as having a 6th sense. I’m not referring to the wildly popular 1999 (can it really be that many years ago?!) supernatural horror film, The Sixth Sense. Rather the 6th sense in the way it is intended; extrasensory perception (ESP).

How does ESP contribute to success in leadership?

Whereas the five senses are physical in nature, ESP taps into the mind. I’m not suggesting you need to be a clairvoyant (although if you are — that’s a bonus), but there are characteristics of the 6th sense worth noting.

It’s a part of our mind and thoughts that are visionary and futuristic. As I stated earlier, it can be nearly impossible to predict the future, however, people will follow leaders who can help paint a picture of what is possible that will garner the actions and behaviors needed to accomplish the loftiest goal.

Wind at Your Back

Success is often expressed through this idiom “Wind at your back is a very good thing because you can quickly and easily set your course.”

For anyone that has been on a motorcycle can attest that wind at your back in never the case. It is the complete opposite – a headwind. From a scientific perspective, it is an impossibility to ride and have wind coming at you from behind.

We all can imagine what having a wind at your back feels like, whether you’ve directly experienced it or not. But what about wind at your face? That’s not to say all wind at your face is bad. Contrary, it is often a great feeling – often referred by motorcycle enthusiasts as “wind therapy.”

Wind, whether coming from the front or behind, can carry you through. As a leader, how you perceive the force of the wind is what is the most exhilarating or derailing. A great leader can move swiftly through the wind, keeping everyone on course and, yes, enjoy the journey along the way.

In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol S. Dweck writes, “A growth mindset comes from the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through effort.”
Changing your mindset from ‘fixed’ to ‘growth’ can make the difference between fighting the headwind or allowing yourself to feel it and thrive as a result.

Keep the Rubber Side Down

It’s an often-used expression amongst motorcyclists to say both goodbye and good luck. I will close with goodbye for now. Stay tuned for Iron Sharpens Iron: Part Two, where I will share insights on what I’ve learned about leadership from watching and helping my husband train for and compete in an IRONMAN.

The more insights the better! If you have any further perspectives on this topic, please share in the comments below.


Michelle Mariola is founder & managing director of ISH-Productions, a Chicago-based branding and marketing company whose mission is to help emerging to mid-market companies develop their marketing strategies and brand identities as well as advancement through culture coaching, leadership development, workshopping, and team engagement exercised.

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