8 Simple (Biker) Rules for Leading Change

I’m a biker.  Not the scary, outlaw kind … but the middle-aged, empty nest, “always wanted to ride fast and feel the wind” kind.  I learned to ride by taking a class at the community college one weekend in June 2009 (yes, clearly not the “I’m cool” kind).  When the weather gets warmer and the sun is shining, riding is meditative, spiritual, life-giving and stress releasing.  This week I took that kind of ride to meet a pastor for lunch.  I had just finished a session with my professional coach in which we were discussing the relationship between leading change in a presbytery and riding a motorcycle.  Here are eight rules of riding that can relate to leading change … in a presbytery, a church, or any system.

1.  Know how your bike functions.

This is pretty self-evident.  Just like you need to know how to use your clutch and whether or not your brakes are integrated, as a leader you need to know how your organization functions.  You may want to “customize” it later, but the beginner needs to understand the basics. How to get things going, and how to stop.  Slowing down might be easy … just ease up on the accelerator.  But, if you need to stop short in a controlled way, that may not be as easy or intuitive.  It takes practice.  Even five years in, Dwayne and I routinely go to an empty parking lot and practice “skills.”

Some basics come from the owners manual … the structure of the institution, the standard operating procedures (presbytery by-laws or plan of presbytery).  Some are not written, but need to be observed and experienced.  Who has the power?  How do decisions really get made?  What do the relationships of this organization look like?  These may not be as obvious, but they are still technical knowledge of how things work.

2. Know your own capabilities.  

Every biker has their own skill level.  There are things we do well, there are things we don’t handle as well.  Every bike, too, has its own capabilities.  No matter how skilled a rider you may be, you’re not going to make your Yamaha 250 perform like a Road King.  I learned this the hard way.

I ride a Yamaha V-star 950.  I call her JoJo DeMoto.  She’s a basic “tommy blue” cruiser with some touring features as add-ons, including foot pads.  My husband, Dwayne, rides a BMW R1200GS.  It’s a sport bike with some added touring features (like cruise control).  When we do long rides, he, generally, takes the lead.  I like it that way.  On Labor Day weekend 2010, we were riding through the hill country of Texas on a scenic route between San Antonio and Austin.  We had just passed through the town of Boerne when we came to a particularly windy section of road.  One particular curve (later we learned it’s dubbed “dead-man’s curve”) was quite a bit tighter than it appeared to us.  Dwayne and “The Beemster” (yes, I named his bike, too) were able to negotiate the curve using the gifts and skills they brought with them — a higher center of gravity, the ability to look through the curve.  I followed using the same speed and approach. JoJo scraped her left foot pad against the pavement as we leaned into the turn.  And, well … the Boerne police later cited me for “driving an unsafe speed.”  It was a safe speed for Dwayne and the Beemster, but, clearly not safe for JoJo and me.  I lost control and spun the bike into the gravel, dirt, and grass … I broke my shoulder and damaged my biker pride.  (I wrote about it in “The Myth of Control” a few months later)

Change in an organization is also contextual.  What works for one pastor in one church will not necessarily work for you in yours.  You have to know your church and your own abilities, your own style and gifts and skills.

3. Listen to your bike … how it feels, how it handles, how it sounds.

The motorcycle’s manual may say “shift into 3rd gear at 25-30 mph,” but good bikers don’t watch their speedometer to tell them when to shift.  You know when it “feels right.”  You have to have a relationship with the bike in order to know how it sounds, how it feels and how it handles.  Without that constant feedback, you’re likely to miss some very important maintenance, road hazards, or other dangers.

Constant feedback and tweaking are necessary to lead a congregation through change.  We need to know how our leadership is being received, who the people are who need to talk to you personally, how quick to move, when you just need to take a rest so the engine of your congregation can cool down and not overheat.  Listen and adjust.

4. Drive like no one can see you … they probably can’t.

The most important lesson of riding a motorcycle is that drivers of other vehicles quite often just don’t see you.  Motorcycle safety involves driving as if the other cars and trucks on the road have no idea you’re there … even if they look directly at you, they may be looking through you.

This may not seem particularly relevant to leadership in the church, since it seems everyone is always watching the pastor.  We often hear pastors complain about life in the “fishbowl”.  And we are often the scapegoats of criticism and fear in the church.  However, leading as if it’s not about you is extremely important. Good leaders let good ideas come from the congregation.  We don’t tell them what to do, but we allow their own leadership to flourish.  Keeping an eye out for where they’re headed and what they might do next is part of the leading.  We may want to rev our engine or blow our horn to call attention to a particular hazard, but chances are, they’re heading there anyway … and you, the leader, are the one who needs to accelerate or break, or swerve out of their way … then give a smile and a nod as you make eye contact.

5. Lean into the curve.

When making a turn there are times when you want to offer some counterbalance to the bike, particularly as you make a sharp turn at slow speeds.  But when you’re steering on the road and the road turns ahead of you, you need to lean into the turn in order to make your turn gracefully and controlled.  In fact, as we lean into the curve our handlebars actually point away from the curve.  So, instead of leaning, we’re taught that we can press the handlebars away from the curve to achieve the same affect.  Either way, it sounds counter-intuitive; yet I found that it’s exactly what I did naturally, if I didn’t think about it so much.

Leading a congregation through change is not a straight road, there are constantly hills, bumps, and curves that we may not anticipate.  “Leaning in” makes all the difference.  This is a lot like Rick Warren’s concept of surfing the waves of the Spirit, or doing what God is blessing instead of asking God to bless what we are doing (from The Purpose Driven Church).  We can’t assume the road is straight, and we can’t build the road exactly where we want it to go … when you see a curve ahead, lean in … Most bikers realize the curves are the most fun parts of riding!

6. Focus down the road, not on the pavement immediately ahead of you. 

One of my biggest challenges in learning to ride was keeping my eyes down the road and noticing the pavement in front of me in my peripheral vision.  In making tight turns, in a parking lot, for instance, or a u-turn on a street, my instructor kept telling me to “keep your head up, and look where you want to go.”  The tendency is to look where I am, at the road beneath me, at the shape of my turn; I think it’s safer. The reality is, though, if I stay focussed on where I’m going, I’m much less likely to loose my balance.  You can see the potholes coming.  Of course, you need to  keep some attention on the road beneath you, but it needs to be more peripheral; our focus needs to be closer to the horizon in order to be prepared and ride steadily.

Leading change requires us to stay focused further ahead than the body of the organization.  Perhaps you’ve heard … the leader’s view is from the balcony or the tall tree in the forest.  We need to know the landscape, not just the ground below or the trees in our immediate view.  As a leader, we handle the things closest to us with greater wisdom and intuition when we have a good idea what’s still coming.

7. Stay in the present.

This may seem like a contradiction to #6, but it’s not.  While it’s true we need the vision to see ahead, we also need to be attentive to what’s immediately at hand.  I wrote an article a few years ago about the spirituality of motorcycle riding … in it, I talk about how we tend to live in “bubbles” that keep us from experiencing the world around us.  Certainly, driving in a car, keeps us isolated from the smells, sounds, and feel of the outside.  You don’t get the “bubble” on a motorcycle.  You see and feel the pavement or gravel of the road; you feel the wind and the pelting rain; you taste the bugs (yeah, not so nice); you smell the wildflowers, the freshly fertilized field, the morning dew, the brewery, the pine forest, or the cranberry bog.

For our safety, too, it’s very important to be consciously noticing the traffic and road conditions.  I will stand up a little if I’m going over railroad tracks to save my buttocks; I want to swerve to miss the access cover in the road; I want to look carefully and mindfully at every intersection … it’s important to be “in the moment” not thinking about last night’s supper or council meeting or tomorrow’s sermon.  This “mindfulness” of riding safely is part of what makes the ride a stress reliever.

Leadership should be focused on the vision ahead, but very mindful of what’s going on around us in the here and now. It’s good to describe, reframe and bring attention to the everyday, routinized, ways of being church.  Let’s appreciate it, and sometimes “reframe” it … like the “freshly fertilized field”, instead of the “stench of manure” … because it’s good spiritual practice to appreciate the inevitability of dirt and dung and the messiness of life together.

8. It’s about the journey and not the destination.

I don’t choose to ride JoJo if I need to be someplace at a specified time, if I’m in a hurry, or if getting there is the primary goal.  Riding is about the movement itself; it is not about getting anywhere in particular.  There are days that Dwayne and I will go out for a ride and go absolutely nowhere … just a large loop using the not-so-traveled roads.  Or we’ll ride on the least direct routes to a particular destination, because it’s prettier, curvier, or more entertaining.  Sometimes the destination, itself, is only a marker on the way, or a rather trivial location … we’ll travel for an hour just to get ice-cream.

In our corporate, production-oriented society, it can seem irresponsible to take the long way or the least efficient way.  As pastors we are often measured and evaluated on the outcome, the task, and not the process.  But, leading change (particularly adaptive change and generative change) is so much more about the journey itself.  No, we don’t always know where we’re going or where we’ll end up.  However, we’re keeping an eye on the horizon, feeling the wind around us, leaning into the curves and having fun.  Yes, it’s ok to have fun, even when the work is hard.

%d bloggers like this: