Finding Our Balance: It’s Like Riding a Bike

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Leaders are expected to be all things, to all people, at all times. To find our balance we have to practice.

I recently started reading The Dichotomy of Leadership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. As I flipped through the pages, I was struck by a passage where they list the many things a leader has to be: “confident but not cocky; courageous but not foolhardy; competitive but a gracious loser; attentive to details but not obsessed by them…” and the list goes on. I wondered how any one person could balance all of those traits.

Coincidentally, I have also begun mountain biking. When I first bought my bike, I eagerly set out to get on the trails, thinking, “I’ve ridden a bike for years. This should be a breeze.” Within an hour, I was tipped over, facing downhill with my laces twisted around a pedal and a bush, thinking, “I probably should have done this a different way.” Afterward, I reached out to a friend who is an experienced mountain biker, and he offered to teach me some balance drills.

Once again, I noticed that word “balance” came up. I began thinking about how important it is to find balance in all areas of life. Finding our balance, whether on a bike or in leadership, is not as simple as it may sound. But balance is just as much a skill as anything else — one that can be taught, practiced, and learned. As leaders, we’re pulled in every direction imaginable. To keep our feet on the ground and our eyes toward the future, we must practice balance across a number of skills — before a lack of balance in an important area has you tipped over and facing downhill.

The right advice is out there

As a young business leader, I made many blunders due to inexperience. If I could go back in time and speak to my 29-year-old self, I would tell myself to read The Dichotomy of Leadership and identify areas where I lean more toward one personality trait than the other. We can all generally pick out which trait we lean toward.

Knowing at a young age where my strengths and weaknesses lay would have given me more time and awareness to find proper balance. If I had followed some of the ideas below, I would have certainly reduced the frequency of my mistakes.

Looking back over my 25 years as a leader, I know that no situation is completely unique. When faced with something new that you can’t find the right balance to handle, find a relevant book and read about what others have done in your place. The right advice is out there somewhere; we just have to seek it out.

Before barreling toward an uncertain future, take a moment to get advice from those who have navigated the path before you. An outside perspective can help us more easily identify when our instinctive leadership style might not be the best approach to the situation.

Practice early and often

I recently thought about how difficult it is to balance patience and prompt decision making in the workplace. Say an employee is struggling at our company: If we react too early, we may not give the person time to improve and grow into a valued member of the team. However, if we wait until the problem spirals out of control, it will be harder to decide how to best handle the situation. We may become annoyed, the team may have negative feelings about the individual, and then we may be pushed into a reactionary position — far from the balanced leadership needed to address a tricky situation.

I made many mistakes when it came to figuring out the right balance of patience and prompt decision making, and I’m still not perfect, but I am practicing. Figuring out how to balance anything, in life or in business, requires practice. If we want to continue to get better, we must try and try again. You perform how you practice. If you don’t practice (and practice well), you will not perform well.

If I had just gone back out onto the trails without asking my friend for some practice drills, I could have seriously injured myself or worse. By following his advice and his methods to find balance on the bike, I was more prepared to tackle the steep cliffs I had my sights set on.

Don’t do it alone

Although I’ve spent more time practicing on my bike, it probably still isn’t safe for me to go on advanced trails by myself. The good news is, in life and leadership, we don’t have to do it alone. Mentors provide invaluable guidance in our careers, and not only when we are just starting. Michael Phelps always had a coach during his gold medal, record-breaking career.

None of us have all the answers, and we never will. We each carry our own biases and tendencies. A mentor or trusted colleague can help point out our biases, offering a fresh perspective and righting our decision-making scales to find a good balance.

Over time, many leadership skills will become second nature, and you may not need to lean on mentors as much. I, too, hope that one day, I can take to trails by myself. But until that time comes, my best chance of success is bringing along a buddy who knows the path better than I do.

There are no training wheels in business

In The Dichotomy of Leadership, the authors write that a leader must find the balance between many different aspects of leadership. How can one person do all of those things well at once? The truth is, we can’t — not without practice and help.

Sadly, there are no training wheels in business. Sometimes you have to jump into an action you’ve never done before. When you combine the knowledge you’ve gained from career experience, strategies you’ve read about in books, and input from others who have done it before, you give yourself the best chance to ride the trails of leadership without ending up upside down on a hill.