Issue Number 6: Leadership and The Bike

Jason was five years old and he wanted more than anything in the whole wide world to be able to ride a two-wheeler. A two-wheeler, those of you who are of a certain age will recall, is what we used to call a bicycle. The natural progression in mastering the two-wheeler began with the tricycle, moved to the two-wheeler with two small training wheels attached to the rear wheel, and finally graduated to the two-wheeler, sleek and fast and unadorned by training wheels.

All the big kids rode two-wheelers, and Jason envied the way they dashed around, gliding effortlessly up and down the street drawing circles and figure eights. It seemed the essence of cool to his tiny little brain.

Jason was stuck at the training wheel stage. There was a critical step between the training wheel stage and the two-wheeler stage. Your father or an older brother would take the training wheels off and you would ride the bike while he held on to the back and ran alongside, keeping it steady while you learned to balance it.

As these sessions continued, he would let go for a few seconds at a time, keeping his hand an inch or two away so he could steady it again if you began to wobble. When he felt you were ready, he would take his hand off the bike without your knowledge and just run alongside it.

And there you were! Riding your two-wheeler all by yourself and escaping forever the tedious world of tricycles and training wheels.

It was an important bonding experience, and it contained life lessons about empathy and encouragement. Perhaps most importantly, it was about trust. It could build trust or damage it in ways that were not apparent at the time.

Since Jason was the oldest child, the responsibility of helping him move from training wheels to two-wheeler fell to his father. His father was always busy and did not seem to have a lot of time for him, so Jason thought if he asked his father to teach him to ride a bike, they would finally be able to spend some quality time together.

It did not turn out the way he planned.

His father, who felt all this running-alongside-the-bike stuff was a waste of time, took him to the top of a steep hill, pushed him off and watched him go. Jason rode for about 50 yards and crashed. His father dragged him back to the top of the hill and pushed him again. This time he traveled about 100 yards and crashed. On the third try he was able to ride all the way down the hill before crashing, and on the fourth try he was able, bruised and bleeding, to ride his bike, or what was left of it.

Jason’s father told the story for years. In his version, he taught his son how to ride a bike in record time. All the other fathers took days, even weeks, but he was tougher and smarter than any of them – and so was his son. They were quite a team! What he did not know was from that day forward, Jason never truly trusted his father again.

The message Jason’s father thought he was sending was: “Trust me – this is the quickest way to learn to ride a bike. You may get a few bumps along the way, but you’ll get over it, and you’ll be better for it.” The message Jason received was: “My father’s time is more important than I am, and he doesn’t care if I get hurt.”

Trust is often built on meeting the other person’s unstated needs. Jason’s father did what he thought Jason wanted – he taught him to ride a bike. He did not know Jason’s real need was to spend more time with him. That incident, and that misunderstanding, had a powerful and enduring effect on Jason and his relationship with his father.

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