2 Essential Leadership Lessons From My Harley Ride in the North Georgia Mountains

How You Can Be a Better Leader or Even Better Follower

It was 90° in Atlanta but 65° in the North Georgia mountains. I was riding my motorcycle through the beautifully curved roads and switchbacks. At 8 a.m. the sun was just peaking through the trees. Every once in a while there would be a break in the trees as I caught a glimpse of farms and the distant Blue Ridge mountains. It was too early for automobiles, so I enjoyed the quiet peacefulness of nature and the rumble of my Harley. I was enjoying this solitude.

Little did I know my riding buddies, David and Allen, were frantically calling my cell to no avail as it was in the trunk of my bike. They began searching for me by retracing the road where they last saw me. They told me later they were riding this road while standing on their foot pegs, emergency blinkers flashing, peeking into ravines looking for me. They were searching for skid marks and bike parts from an accident they hoped I didn’t have. Other bikers stopped to ask what was wrong, and now it was getting downright scary for them. They thought they should call Kathy, my wife, to see if she had heard from me.

Going Solo

Without a care in the world, I kept going while enjoying my ride. I knew our ultimate destination, so I decided to keep riding north on Route 60 until I came to a gas station, and then I would call them. Little did I know there were no gas stations for 40 miles. When I arrived at a Sunoco station in Morganville, Georgia and looked at my phone, I had four calls from my friends plus frantic text messages. They were scared I was hurt or, worse yet, dead. Thank God they didn’t call Kathy.

The reason we were separated is their bikes are faster and more nimble than mine. They were on sport bikes made for the twisties. My Harley Hog was made for four-lane highways. I tried to keep up, but in the interest of safety, I stayed under control by riding within my ability. Within a couple of miles, they were so far ahead of me I never saw them again. Little did I know, they stopped to wait for me when they came to a major intersection and our turnoff, but I rode right past them. They didn’t see me, and I didn’t see them.

We eventually figured out we could meet at a McDonald’s in Blairsville. They rode north from where they were, and I road east to meet them. When I got there, I took the offensive in a light, offhanded way but quickly realized they were upset with me. And they were right to be upset. David, our ride leader, told me I need to learn group riding rules. He was right. I never ride in groups, so I knew nothing about the rules. In fact, when I lost them, I figured I could always finish the ride through the mountains and head back to Atlanta. No big deal.

Learning the Rules

David told me “The responsibility of the lead group rider is to wait at major intersections for the slower riders to catch up.” He did his job. He also said, “Your responsibility is to pull over and call the lead rider if you don’t see the group for 10 minutes.” In addition to not knowing the rules, I never asked for the route we were planning to take. I just assumed I would eventually get there if I kept riding north.

Two simple rules:

1. If you are the leader, don’t get too far ahead.
2. If you are the follower, don’t get too far behind.

I had this very same conversation with a visionary non-profit leader. He is always needing to raise more money because he is constantly extending and broadening his vision. After a few years of this behavior, it began to bother me, and in fact, frustrate me. I told him, “You can’t allow your vision to outpace your donor base. If you do, you will lose them.” I have learned from observation, great visionary leaders know exactly how far ahead of the group they can get without losing them. This is the art of leadership.

On the other hand, I too have a responsibility with my visionary non-profit friend. I have to make the effort to catch up to him. I must continue to pursue him. His vision captured me when I first heard it, and I must stay connected and understand his new, bigger vision. He made me go faster, and I helped him set the right pace. That’s how these two simple rules work in building great companies while retaining great people.

I apologized to my friends for giving them a scare. I felt bad that I had ruined their beautiful Saturday morning ride. We left McDonald’s after deciding we were headed to Hayesville, North Carolina for what was now a late breakfast. The breakfast and the rest of the ride were delightful and uneventful. We followed the group riding rules. When I got home, I told Kathy what happened. That’s when I really got chewed out!

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