Just Like Riding a Bike

We’ve all heard the saying “It’s just like riding a bike.” It refers to the concept that once you learn certain things, you never forget and the required skills will immediately or quickly come back to you when needed. While it’s a reality that certain things we learn will always stick with us, today I want to focus instead on the ways that we learn to ride a bike—specifically, on the approach taken to teach someone to ride a bike and, more important, the leadership lesson to be found there.

As a regular speaker on the topic of leadership, I often seek out visuals to represent leadership, and one that’s often repeated is of the apparent leader on the summit reaching down and back to help another team member to reach the summit. You’ve seen these pictures over and over, but what you rarely see is a visual of the leader behind and below the team members supporting them UP to the next level. I get the concept of leaders leading from the front, but it’s always struck me in these visuals that the leader has already achieved a place, goal or position and is now reaching down to help someone else get to where the leader already is. I understand that there’s a certain reality in this picture, but is this the best way to lead – by pulling others up to you? I wonder–and thus we get back to learning to ride a bike.

If you’re like me, you don’t remember learning to ride a bike, but I most definitely remember teaching my sons to ride. It’s constantly replayed for us in television, movies and even marketing visuals showing an adult helping a child learn to ride a bike. And they all show the same thing – the adult running alongside the child and holding onto the back of the seat. Not only does the teacher run alongside, but he or she whispers supportive words to the child: “You can do it,” “You’re okay,” “I’ve got you.”

The teacher occasionally lets go of the seat to let the child ride unsupported but then grabs the seat again, usually without ever telling the child. The goal is for the child to know that it’s safe and to learn to believe in himself or herself while acquiring the balance and skills needed to ride the bike. The learner also gets to take the risks involved gradually, without just being put on a bike, pushed down the hill and told to go without any support or encouragement. The “just do it and you’ll learn by crashing over and over” method doesn’t make many commercials.

But doesn’t it sound familiar? Perhaps this was the way that you were “developed” as a leader, and perhaps this is the way that you are developing your future leaders – throwing them into the fire, letting them fail and seeing who survives.

What if instead you developed your team and leaders the same way you taught someone to ride a bike – by encouraging them, supporting them, running along beside (or behind) them and gradually letting go? If you’re entrenched in the old way of throwing people into the fire, you might consider this approach to be soft, but it’s not. You can still have high expectations, but you lead and grow your people with them, supporting them and encouraging them. Rather than letting go all at once, give them opportunities to grow and lead, hang on (stay involved) just enough to let them know that they’re not alone, and run alongside and encourage them by whispering in their ear: “You’ve got this,” “You can do this,” “I believe in you,” and “I’ve got your back.”

Certainly, let them fail AND let them know that you won’t let them fall. Leaders are used to jumping off cliffs and trusting, but your people won’t appreciate being pushed off the cliff without a rope, parachute or net. I believe that the essence of leadership is growing your people, and you’ll grow more people and leaders by teaching them to lead the same way that you’d teach them to ride a bike.

The only question is whether you care enough to do it different and to support, encourage and help them reach the summit together rather than racing ahead and coming back for them. Giving someone a hand up is a good thing, but lifting someone up is the heart of a servant leader. And here’s the best part – when you empower others into their leadership this way, they will naturally continue to lead in all parts of their lives and for the rest of their lives—just like riding a bike. Now, that’s what I call creating real impact.

Father teaching son how to ride a bike


  1. The title of your article caught my attention! This is the title of my motivational presentation. I was injured while riding my bike on June 13, 1998 when I was suddenly crushed by a falling 7,000 pound tree and instantly paralyzed from the waist down. I use the metaphor of getting back on the bike and getting back into life. In my presentation I share five of the life lessons I learned after my spinal cord injury.

    I enjoyed reading your article on the role of a leader.

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