My oldest son is 17 years old, and he (along with 11 other young adults) rode his bike across the country this summer. They pedaled over 3,200 miles, carried their camping gear on their bikes, changed 100+ flat tires, shopped and cooked for their meals, and somehow, managed to arrive in one piece at the Santa Monica Pier last month. When I think of what was required for this group to succeed, it almost feels impossible that they survived - much less thrived.
So, how did they succeed? Each member was put in clearly defined leadership roles that both ensured that the group benefitted from each member's contributions - and celebrated the roles they played. As I reflected on their journey, it reminded me of the various ways that we each can lead in the organizations and communities we are part of.*
Leader in Front. When we typically picture "leadership," this image comes to mind - the charismatic leader in front, guiding the group towards the goal. On the bike ride, the front leader played this role. They outlined the plan for the day, set the pace, and made sure the group followed the course. The front leader also focused on succession planning, making sure that there were others that could jump into that role, should the need arise. (And on this trip, several emergencies required just that.). A great front leader inspired the group, made them believe they could achieve great things, and celebrated when they did.
Leader Behind. While this role is not as visible in popular leadership stories, it is a crucial role needed in any organization - and the bike ride was no different. The Leader Behind was responsible for making sure that everyone ahead of them stayed ahead of them, and picking up anything (or anyone) who fell along the way. Just like in any organization, these type of leaders are the glue that hold everyone together, encouraging the group and nourishing them along the way.
Leader Beside. These leadership opportunities abounded on the trip. Each day, the young adults had a role to fill - keeping their place in line, calling out any gaps (if the distance between them and the rider behind grew too large), calling out hazards, shopping, cooking and cleaning. The group had over 100+ flat tires during their journey. The leaders beside learned how to repair flat tires, and so, by the end of the trip, there were multiple leaders who could step in to help the front leaders. And most importantly, the leaders beside offered encouragement, support, and a sense of "I've got you" to their peers as they travelled.
Leader in the Field. Leaders in the field expand our attention beyond individual people to connect with the energetic field that surrounds life. This too happened throughout the trip - as the group entered new towns, were greeted with police escorts and home-cooked meals, and connected with nature in awe-struck ways. I had the opportunity to witness this energetic field on the last day of the trip. It was 6am, and the kids were exhausted and emotional - about to depart this close-knit group for the first time in 6 weeks. At the hotel they were staying at, the security guard was just finishing up his night shift. Upon learning what the group had just accomplished, he shared that he was an avid bike rider - and asked if the group if he could give them a final blessing. Kids from all backgrounds and belief systems bowed their heads to take this blessing in for what it was - a gift given from a stranger. As they stood in a circle for one final time, they were reverently grounded in this moment, and how many gifts they had been given along the way.
Leader Within. And most importantly, these young leaders had to dig deep within to find the grit, resilience, and energy to push on. To truly be an effective leader within, we need to live our lives with integrity, and model self-acceptance and self-authority. As I watched these young adults climb off their bikes, the stories abounded about how helpful others were, how supported they felt, and how they found the inner strength and confidence to succeed. Imagine how rich all of our lives could be if we could always feel both unique and secure.
What different leadership opportunities exist for you? And those around you? We often focus on the leader in front, but leadership from behind, beside, in the field, and within are just as critical. Are you looking for these opportunities to lead, to connect, and to recognize the contributions from each of these much-needed roles? And what might be possible if everyone had clear role definitions, and a greater sense of appreciation for the impact each role has?
For starters, you just might accomplish the impossible.
* These leadership terms come from the Co-Active Training Leadership model.