Leadership is about accomplishing exceptional and worthwhile things through and with other people. In the process, it raises the goals, values, aspirations, dignity, and senses of self-worth for all those involved. — Coleman Patterson
As a leadership and management professor, I often look for lessons and examples to use as metaphors to make the concepts that we study more real to my students. The BRAT projects not only provide a laboratory for students to practice the skills of leadership, teamwork, and organization, but also give me opportunities to make connections between the rides and the concepts we study through our program.
Through the training and execution of our rides, I’ve come to appreciate the shared and flowing nature of leadership. The person who takes the lead on loading the gear in the morning might not be the same person who first volunteers to protect the cyclists by driving the support vehicle. The person who notices possible problems with weather and route might not be the same person giving encouragement to the team members. The positions that the members ride within team of cyclists on the road also say a lot about teamwork and leadership.
Many people probably carry a notion that the leader of a pack of cyclists is the one in front. We have been conditioned through a multitude of influences in our society to see a leader as one who rides out in front of the team and blazes the trail. When the trail is risky or uncertain, leadership is needed out front. The point person needs to provide direction and guidance to those behind them. They need to know the destination and possess a solid understanding of how to get there. They need to read the signs along the way and confidently set a path for others to follow. When questions or concerns arise, they need to seek input and additional guidance to help the team stay on course.
They must also be aware of the people behind them. Leadership also exists in the middle of the pack and at the back. The back of the pack is the best place to discover and address problems within the team. Flat tires, mechanical issues, physical problems, and communication with the support vehicle are always easiest at the end of line. The one at the back is protector and helper of those in need.
The people in the middle have the responsibility of keeping the front and the back together. Whereas the members in the front are responsible for setting the pace and determining directions for the team and the ones at the back are responsible for support and addressing problems that arise in the team, the ones in the middle communicate with the front and keep an eye on the back to make sure that everyone is supported and sticks together.
With our adventures, the person who knows the route best is usually the driver of the support vehicle—who is often behind the pack of cyclists. The support vehicle is also where the tools, food, and supplies reside. It is also the place where weary cyclists can find rest and refuge when the need arises. The support vehicle driver protects the cyclists from traffic, helps with navigation, and provides many essential support functions during the rides. The support driver must know when to hang back, when to pull alongside, and when to ride in front of the cyclists. It is not uncommon, for example, for the support car to drive in front of the cyclists through towns with twists and turns in the route or to pull up along the cyclists to relay important information of all types. The support driver is as much a part of the team as the cyclists on the road.
Leadership is a process. It is a phenomenon that is shared and bounces around between members of effective and well-functioning teams. Whether one rides in the support vehicle or the front, middle, or back of the cycling pack, the primary focus should be on the health and effective functioning of the team as it works together towards its goals. As members take turns shifting between the various team roles, they must be aware of and capable of meeting the demands of each position.
The more we do these long-distance rides, the more value I see in the rides as ways to study, practice, and master the skills of leadership and teamwork. It is hoped that the lessons gained will carry with the students into their future professional and life leadership roles.