Learning to Ride a Bike--and to Lead

By Ray Blunt

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One of the great joys of this next half of life has been teaching three of my older grandkids how to ride a bike. I can ride a bike fairly well and even commuted back and forth to Washington for eight years, logging several thousand miles in the process. So I “know” how to ride. The question then was how to help Joshua, Rachel and Carissa learn what I know. In this simple learning experience lies the secret to how leaders are made—not born. Leaders learn to lead as apprentices in the classroom of experience with senior leaders. They may “fall” a few times, but someone is alongside helping them and encouraging them until they are on their own.

However, if I followed the typical government leadership learning approach to bike riding, I would have registered Josh and Rachel in the “Seven Habits of Successful Bike Riders” training course put on by an expert consultant like Greg LeMond. Cost: $7,500 for one week plus travel and per diem (the three pound class notebook of lectures, case studies and outlines would be well worth it). Or, I might have had them view the video, “In Search of Excellent Bike Riders,” narrated by that dynamic and energetic expert, Lance Armstrong. Or, I might even have given them a reading list of the ten best books of all time on bicycling. Somewhat silly, but you get the point. And fortunately, there are excellent organizations in government that have also started to get the point.

The organizations that are the best at the leadership preparation game base their approach to learning on the four lessons of life and experience—in the following order of importance:

The basis for this approach is well grounded. The Center for Creative Leadership has been conducting longitudinal studies of effective leaders and how they got that way for over three decades—research that encompasses the public and private sectors, men and women, minorities, and global leaders. And while there are variations in how each of us learns to lead, the proportions are pretty much the same for us all.

The organizations best at growing leaders have taken this research and put it into practice. They find that these four “lessons” work in concert and that they must be intentional and systematic, pointed at developing the character qualities and competencies needed at progressive levels of leadership responsibility. These include moral courage, strategic thinking, leading change, motivating people, integrity, building a shared vision, and political savvy.

Case in point: The Air Force uses career broadening staff assignments after initial operational expertise is achieved as a means of preparing young officers for command of small units or for senior staff jobs. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation has senior mentors paired with the members of their Leaders Growing Leaders Program as a way to pass on wisdom through observation and conversation and to coach the members of the Program when they are involved in short-term rotational assignments. Social Security places people in temporary positions outside their career field and above their current grade to stretch them.

The common notion that people learn to lead by progressing through successive levels of expertise in an organizational “stovepipe” is clearly wrong in developing leaders, as is the assumption that something “magic” happens when people attend an expensive and renowned training program. These are myths and they are expensive myths.

In short, to help beginning employees learn to lead, an organization needs to adopt an intentional approach to providing a variety of challenging job experiences (get them up on that shaky bike) such as job rotations; have senior leaders walk alongside the new “riders” as coaches, teachers and mentors; let them watch senior leaders themselves “ride” as examples; and, then spend some time in reflection with them so that learning can be further embedded when some of the inevitable failures occur. This is a culture change.

This approach to development becomes not so much a program as a way of life in the best organizations. Leaders take the time to help younger leaders learn by experience, who in turn help those behind them learn to lead. This is servant leadership in action. Once you have three generations of “bike riders” you will know you have embedded the practices into the culture. That is an investment of time that is well worth the lessons learned—and it is an investment that leaves a legacy.

Ray Blunt currently teaches philosophy and theology to juniors and seniors at Ad Fontes Academy, a classical Christian school in Centreville, VA. He is the author of Crossed Lives, Crossed Purposes: Why Thomas Jefferson Failed and William Wilberforce Persisted in Leading an End to Slavery, an historical leadership exploration, and a contributor to The Jossey-Bass Reader on Non-Profit and Public Leadership. Ray has long served as a leadership consultant, teacher, and speaker for many government and non-profit organizations after spending 35 years in public service in the US Air Force and the US Department of Veterans Affairs as a Senior Executive. He is B.J.'s husband of 50 years and the father of two grown children, and grandfather of five aspiring servant leaders.

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