Leadership Lessons From RAGBRAI – Part I

For those of you who followed me on Facebook last week, you may have seen some of the photos of me, my two brothers, and our friend Nick participating in RAGBRAI:  a 7-day (50 to 80 mile per day) bike ride across Iowa from the west to east state lines.  I learned a lot about navigating the rolling hills of Iowa – as well as navigating leadership…

New to cycling, my legs were constantly sore!  As I slowly progressed, I watched with keen interest over 15,000 strong riders, mostly 25 to 45 in age.  Some were children as young as 10 and a handful were in their 70’s!  One person was on a unicycle and another brought her dog along.  As we stopped at every small farm town, it was phenomenal to experience the local culture and foods and meet the local Iowans that farm this beautiful state.

navigating leadership

As I negotiated the Iowa hills among the beautiful cornfields, I had plenty of time to think.   Several of the experiences and scenes reminded me of different aspects of leadership.  I also listened to several leadership seminars on my iPhone which helped spur my thinking.

I want to share those with you in this three-part series from RAGBRAI.

Navigating the rolling hills of leadership.

There are three types of terrain:  flat land, downhill and uphill.  The flat lands were predictable, manageable, and for the most part easy to pedal across.  Downhills were a different story.  Suddenly, I was an instant success!   I mastered it quickly.  And as I coasted down I had a chance to relax and enjoy the winds blowing on my face, sometimes up to 37 miles per hour.   Usually after a downhill came the uphills and that’s where most cyclists struggle – I was certainly no exception.

After the first few days, I figured out a secret to manage uphills better.   I found out that if during the downhill I remained super-focused, I expected the uphill to come.  I would then maximize my speed, and as I hit the uphill keep pedaling and downshifting systematically.  I got through 70% of most hills on the momentum of the downhill.  And the rest was a piece of cake!

As I think back on my experiences navigating leadership, there were definitely flat lands when things were smooth and straightforward, downhills where things were going my way and I started gaining speed.  And then came the uphills – the times where things slowed down.  To move forward I had to work hard, struggle, and fight just to stay in the game.

When we are traversing the landscape of leadership, this is normal.  I first expected Iowa to be flat – at least I hoped it would be.  Likewise, I thought navigating leadership would be easy.  Once I discovered and expected hills – both in Iowa and in leadership – I started doing better.  At least emotionally, I handled the uphills better – not only because I prepared during the downhills, but also because I expected the uphills to come.  All of the sudden, I was okay with it.  It  just became part of the process for me.

And as I engaged the next hill, a part of me wished the entire ride would be flat lands or downhills.  But then, I reminded myself that this is the ride I signed up for.  That’s why most people don’t succeed at it, because they are not willing to continually negotiate the recurring hills of Iowa – or leadership!  I wanted that final prize.  I wanted to participate in the tradition of dipping my front tire in the Mississippi River on the last day.  I want the prize of going with great people to great places to accomplish great things.

Friend, the hills of leadership will not go away.  You may get better, as you should.  But are you willing to live a life of conquering the hills of leadership?

I encourage you today to persevere!  I can’t wait to share more leadership lessons from RAGBRAI in Part II and Part III of this series.

Your friend,
Wes Saade MD Signature

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6 Comments
  • Cindy Redemann
    Posted at 09:06h, 06 August Reply

    What a great analogy for leadership and life itself. I think human nature is to coast down hill and then fight the uphills or even give up. I have learned this lesson in my life with diabetes. When I am going down hill and things are going great I would stop being so diligent in my own care. Then I would start that uphill climb again and want to give up or it became a battle to get to the top of that hill so I can go downhill again. I too have learned to stay strong and diligent all the time. In so doing the whole journey has become easier.
    Thank you Dr. W. again for your words of inspiration!

    • Wes Saade
      Posted at 20:22h, 07 August Reply

      Thank you so much Cindy for your comment… managing Diabetes is certainly a tough battle, and you have excelled at conquering it. You have also been intentional to help others do the same… thank you!!!

  • Jamie Adams
    Posted at 10:08h, 06 August Reply

    Congratulations on not only accomplishing such a feat but to have taken away such good life (& leadership) lessons as well.

    On a personal note, I have a ton of family in Iowa, you make me miss their beautiful farm land and relaxed attitudes!

    Looking forward to part II!

    • Wes Saade
      Posted at 20:23h, 07 August Reply

      Thank you Jamie for the comment… I really did love the State and the people. Maybe you can come with us next year!!!

  • Colin
    Posted at 17:30h, 28 December Reply

    Great thinking. I’d enjoy hearing more of your thoughts on the intersection between cycling and leadership.

    • Wes Saade
      Posted at 20:40h, 28 December Reply

      Thanks Collin! Are you a cyclist?

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