School Leadership: It’s like riding a motorcycle!

I began riding a motorcycle over two years ago.  I never had any intention of becoming a biker.  I was happy and busy and certainly didn’t need a new hobby.  I was 51 when I started.  Such a cliché.  Mid-life crisis, right?  Not really, but it’s hard to overcome appearances.  I blame my friends.  They started riding a few months before me, got their licenses, and took to riding like ducks to the water.  Every time we got together they would ask me when I was going to join them.  I scoffed at them, laughed, and tried to change the conversation, but they sowed a seed.  I finally gave in and tried out my friend’s bike.  I was hooked.  A week later I bought my first bike (I’m already on my second, it’s bigger and faster of course).  Over the past two years I have put in about 11,000 miles on my bike(s).  I’ve been to Key West, Daytona, and all over the Maryland/Delaware area.  The more I ride, the more I see the parallels between riding a motorcycle and school leadership.  Here are a few of those lessons learned:

Balance

Before I could take the motorcycle license test, I had to get experience.  You have to ride a motorcycle to get better at it, so for three months I was “riding dirty,” with no license.  I would ride around my neighborhood, never venturing too far.  One day I was at a stop sign.  I thought the bike was in first gear as I prepared to take off.  I wasn’t in first gear.  I was in neutral.  I picked up my feet (bad decision) hit the throttle and fell over.  Luckily, my body broke the bike’s fall.  I was bruised along the right side and very embarrassed.  It took me a while to re-build my confidence, but I did.

Lesson:  Riding a motorcycle and school leadership require balance.  School leaders who forget to nurture their personal lives will lose their balance and fall over.  Sub lesson: Never give up! 

Braking

Just after getting my license, I was heading down a very busy four lane highway.  I was behind my friends and decided to zoom past them for fun.  I didn’t see that the traffic in front of them had stopped.  I hit the back brake too hard and my bike started to fishtail.  I was headed into the back of a mini-van and swerved off the road into a grassy median strip to avoid a collision.  I stayed on the bike, went down a small hill, and gradually worked my way back to the road.  I was uninjured, but startled by how quickly things went bad.  I spent the next several weeks working on my braking skills.

Lesson:  Know when to slow down.  School leaders are always on the go.  Sometimes we have to hit the brakes and change our path to avoid burning out or colliding with others.

The Ride

Not all my lessons have come from mishaps.  Riding a motorcycle is freeing.  It’s like riding a roller coaster without the rails.  The people I ride with agree that once you learn to ride a motorcycle you gradually relax and think less about the “how” and start enjoying the “why.”  When you first start riding you’re thinking about the clutch, the gear shift lever, the brakes, the throttle and everything else that goes with staying up and on the road.  Later on, these become second nature and you begin to have fun.

Lesson:  Once you become an experienced school leader you can begin to enjoy the job in its entirety.  Try not to get so caught up in the minutiae that you fail to enjoy the children, the staff, and the parents.  Being a school leader is fun, enjoy the ride.

Zen

Riding a motorcycle takes patience.  One of the first things you learn in a motorcycle safety course is that you must assume that no one can see you.  Ride like you’re invisible.  Every time I get on the bike I must remind myself to “be cool.”  It doesn’t take long on a bike ride before someone in a car does something dangerous that puts you in peril.  If you internalize everything, it will consume you and you can easily become an aggressive rider.  Ride with confidence, but never assume others are paying attention to you.  Be cool.

Lesson:  You control your emotions and your response when things go wrong.  Be patient, take time, and breathe before you make important decisions.  Nothing good happens when decisions are made in anger. 

Humility

Being confident on a bike is important, but over-confidence is a problem.  I learn something new every time I ride.  I am always trying to improve my skills.  The moment you think you’ve mastered the skill of riding a motorcycle is the moment you need to put the bike away for good.  Humility on a motorcycle will keep you safe and, hopefully, alive.  After just two years of riding, I know I have much more to learn.

Lesson:  The best school leaders understand that their growth and learning needs to be continuous.  School leaders who think they’ve “arrived” will eventually find that their destination can never reached.  Overconfidence in school leadership leads to a lack of collaboration.  Schools need leaders who recognize their limitations and value the knowledge of others. 

Chrome up, rubber down.  Ride on!

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