Take It to the Limit?

How fast can a person ride on a bicycle? How fast have you gone on a bicycle? I know I’ve broken 50mph (downhill, of course).

In September 2016, Denise Mueller set a new women’s bicycle speed record, 147mph.[1] And she felt that if she had a course two miles longer, she could have beaten the men’s record. Was your top estimate anywhere close to that? I haven’t even gone that fast in a car!

High speed bike

Denise did not place any artificial limits on her potential as she trained. She had realistic goals, proper equipment, and a team that supported her. At the same time, there were certainly risks involved. We can probably draw some leadership lessons from the lead car. I’ll save those for another post.

The Bike

As leaders, we continually set goals for ourselves and for our teams. Our chief aim is continued improvement: we want our performance to become better over time. But are we ever guilty of aiming too low, and holding our team back?

We know that greater expectations lead to improved performance. But have you ever had a leader who tried to limit your expectations? It can be a frustrating experience.

Yes, as leaders, we must help our teams set realistic goals; but this doesn’t mean that we should place artificial limits on our talented team members. We may have some record-breaking talent, but if we restrain them, they will never have a chance to break records.

Mark Sanborn discusses that the human tendency is to limit our disappointments by limiting our expectations.[2] If we expect too much, we will frequently become disappointed. But disappointment rarely follows low expectations.

Sanborn says: “One of the keys to continual improvement is the willingness to risk disappointment, to see disappointment not as a bad thing to be avoided but as proof positive we are aiming higher and striving to get better.”[3] He concludes that highly successful people are more often disappointed than are other people. Why are they successful? They don’t let their disappointments slow them down, or hold them back.

As leaders, we should feel empowered to help our teams become better than their best. We must remember that this improvement is incremental. Elite Olympians don’t double their performance overnight. Frequently their coached improvements come as tenths of seconds are shaved off from their best times.

As leaders and coaches in other fields, we might ask these questions:

  1. What are the best metrics for evaluating your team’s performance? Hint: it is rarely money.
  2. What degree of improvement is appropriate for the tasks performed by your team? Remember the Olympians: the increments should be appropriate for the task and the team.
  3. What type of motivation is most appropriate for your team, including rewards for achieving the objectives? Sometimes a simple “thank you” is sufficient; other times it will be grossly inadequate. On the other hand, if you feel you must hover over your team and crack a whip over them, you will need to examine your “motivational” techniques.
  4. What is an appropriate time frame? It is important to balance the potential for disappointment with the potential for growth, and create a realistic time frame.
  5. Are you risking your own job by risking disappointment? This is a difficult situation for a leader: you may need to temper your risks, but don’t eliminate them.

Now some personal questions from Sanborn[4]:

  1. How do you imagine yourself becoming better than you already are?
  2. How do you overcome the limitation of your experiences?

You cannot help your team grow if you are not growing yourself. Coach Lou Holtz is fond of saying “You are either growing or you are dying.” Choose growth.

A good leader enables his team to become better than their best by setting them up to excel.


Pictures courtesy of Project Speed, via Velo News


[1] For details on how she did it, follow this link: http://www.velonews.com/2016/09/news/ca-woman-rides-her-bicycle-147-mph-a-new-world-record_420507#2gpxGMoWiLSm285y.99.

[2] Sanborn, M. The Potential Principle, p. 9. 2017.

[3] Ibid., p. 9.

[4] Ibid., p. 9.

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