Five Things Motorcycling Taught Me About Life and Leadership

Soul story

Before I became Founder and Chief Soul Officer of my own coaching company, I was riding motorcycles around the world as VP, Global Brand + Marketing of Harley-Davidson. Selling a two-wheeled, chrome version of freedom to rebel souls from the U.S. to India to Brazil. It was as wild as you might imagine.

I wasn’t even a rider when I started working for Harley back in 2010. I was fresh off a divorce from my husband of nearly 9 years and ready to hit the refresh button on every aspect of my life at age 40. I wanted to prove to the world and myself that I was more badass than ever; that my next chapter would be epic. So I straddled the iron horse, got my license, and rolled on the throttle. I expected to have all kinds of leather-clad fun (and I did), but what I didn’t expect was how much motorcycling would teach me about life and leadership. How much it would shake up my perspective and push me out of my comfort zone. How much the initial fear would transform into massive momentum.

You may be thinking, “I’ve never ridden a motorcycle.” And maybe you never want to. That’s ok, too. I guarantee these lessons will still resonate. To be honest, I spend far more time off the bike these days and yet these truths guide me every day as a coach, an entrepreneur, a leader, and a woman.

Keep reading for my five favorite lessons and how they keep me on the road today. Try them on like a sexy leather jacket and behold the impact on your life and business.

1.   Focus on where you want to go, not on what you’re trying to avoid. Said a different way: if you fixate on the obstacle in your path, you’ll end up hitting it. Guaranteed. It’s one of the first things you learn in motorcycle training. Fully turn your head (not just your eyes) to look where you want to go and the bike will follow. So make sure you are locked in on the road, not the wall.

I had this happen to me recently. I was fixating on my book deadline so I was hitting the proverbial wall with writer’s block constantly. I was literally turning the creative spigot off by obsessing over the wall (the deadline) instead of the beautiful journey ahead. As soon as I reminded myself of the privilege of getting to tell MY story to thousands of people, with the chance of liberating more souls on this planet, I found flow again. I was finally looking into the clearing.

This might also show up in leadership as seeing the opportunities versus obstacles and steering yourself/the team in that direction. Perhaps even imagining new horizons versus obsessing about the competition.

Where might you be fixating on an obstacle instead of an opportunity in your life right now?

2.   Lean into turns. The simple fact is that motorcycles turn by leaning into them. The rider pushes down on the handlebar in the direction of the turn and leans into it in order to guide the bike in “cornering” the turn. Add in smooth acceleration and momentum and you are cruising. If you waver, you’ll wobble, or even stall, mid-turn. You must lean in, roll on, and fully commit.

When you first learn this principle, it feels counterintuitive and scary. You feel as if the bike is going to tip over and pin you to the ground but, if you don’t, you’ll end up veering out of your lane or possibly off the road. And, as you might guess, that doesn’t usually end well.

Leaning into a turn is the equivalent of leaning into an opportunity in life and leadership. Being all-in and committed to momentum in the direction you’re headed, however terrifying it might feel in that moment. When I first opened the doors of my company, I resisted leaning fully into coaching because I was afraid no one would pay me as a “new coach.” I was completely discounting my decades of corporate leadership experience, talent development, and team building. Basically, I was resisting the lean, which took me off course into consulting for six months (and made me miserable). As soon as I started to lean in to coaching full-time, my revenue hit six figures.

Where in your life or your business are you resisting the lean?

3.   It’s about the journey, not the destination. Words originally penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson and celebrated by riders everywhere. The phrase is a powerful reminder to slow down, take the scenic route, and be present to all of the things you would miss out on if you took the straight and narrow (and oh so boring) highway at high speed. Create the space and savor the moments along the way— the unexpected beauty, people, ideas, and opportunities the Universe will drop in your path.

In life and leadership I like to think of this as slowing down to speed up. So often we’re racing from one appointment/meeting/lunch/event/task to the next. We’re barely allowing time for bathroom breaks let alone the opportunity to process, integrate, and reflect on what we’re learning and experiencing along the way. We’re falling prey to measuring ourselves on productivity versus impact. And we’re getting sucked into “busy-ness” which clutters the white space of creativity and opportunity. Slowing down allows us to follow our soul’s process, not our ego’s desires. And it pays dividends.

For me, this has meant purposefully blocking time for creativity, community and inspiration every week. I write on Mondays and Fridays. I coach on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And Wednesday is kept open for community, conversations, and connections. This not only fuels me, it prevents me from overbooking myself. I’m also now very selective about who and what I let onto my calendar.

Where can you create the space to slow down, reflect, and invite new ideas/opportunities/connections into your life and business?

4.   Be present. This is a non-negotiable in motorcycling. Your life depends on it. Distraction is disaster. There’s no such thing as multi-tasking on a bike beyond shifting gears, signaling turns, and rolling on the throttle. No texting, no social media, no talking-while-you’re-typing, no five-things-at-once juggling. So why do we think we can be good at it in other aspects of our lives?

The consequences might not be as catastrophic as they are on a motorcycle, but I have no doubt that multi-tasking is having a more significant impact on the quality of our work, thinking, self-care, and relationships than we’re willing to admit.

I practice being fully present in the moment through my writing, coaching and meditation. I silence and put away my phone, computer, and any other applications – whatever’s not needed for the task at hand. I don’t take my phone into class at the gym. I don’t look at my phone when engaging in conversation. Never underestimate the power of presence to connect with your own soul and others. You will listen and feel on a much deeper level. 

Where in your life can you practice being less distracted and more present?

5.   Break out of your cage. As riders, we refer to a car as a “cage” because it’s fully enclosed. It doesn’t offer the same experience of freedom as a motorcycle. It may have all the bells and whistles of modern comfort and safety, but it keeps you from being one with nature and the elements. It’s not as liberating. At Harley-Davidson HQ in Milwaukee, the premier parking closest to the building is motorcycle parking only. The sign reads, “No Cages Allowed.”

I love this metaphor because it can also apply to an office, a home, or a conference room. The point is to get outside, break free, and feel the wind in your hair. It’s phenomenal for stress relief and mental health and unlocking creativity. It can provide perspective and allow time for your thoughts to percolate. If motorcycling isn’t your thing, no worries. What gets you outside and moving? Walking, bicycling, hiking, running, yoga in the park, walk ‘n talk meetings?

At Harley, one of the famous campaign slogans was, “Screw it, Let’s Ride.” What if we all rebelled for our own self-care and soul time in the same way? What would that look like for you?

I would love to know how you applied these and what worked for you. Feel free to start a community conversation here or email me at soulbbatical@gmail.com.

If you enjoyed this, chances are you’ll like my forthcoming book, “Soulbbatical: A Corporate Rebel’s Guide to Finding Your Best Life.” It’s an invitation to what’s possible for each of us, and for all of us, when we own our purpose, speak our truth, and courageously create the life we really want. If this speaks to your soul, you can pre-order a copy here: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Soulbbatical/Shelley-Paxton/9781982131333

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