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Crafted by Justin Ahrens

Are You a Good Virtual Leader?

Recently I was on a bike ride, and it was a beautiful day. Slight wind, perfect temperature, just utterly peaceful. When I have rides like that, I tend to get in tune with my whole body and have a sense of spiritual relaxation. I love it when that happens because the thoughts I tend to push down for another day or compartmentalize bubble up to the surface. And as I went from one pedal spin to another, it seemed like one thought came up after every rotation. All these thoughts tended to circle around everything that has changed in the world these last few months.

As my thoughts circled to work, I started to get into a space of self-awareness. How am I really doing? I wondered. Am I feeling okay? How present have I been? Am I doing a good job? And then, right on cue, I hit a little climb. As I increased my output to get up this climb at my desired pace, it was as if that extra energy output cracked open something that was concerning me. Was I a good leader, and more specifically, was I a good virtual leader? Usually, my mind would put up walls and guard me against digging into this, but after riding twenty or so miles, I was getting a little tired, and my normal protective defenses were down. In this state, I was open to going past the normal defensiveness of ego, avoidance, and denial, and was ready to think about some self-awareness work authentically. Getting to this place of openness is my first advice for any leader. Take the time to be in some form of solitude and to give yourself frequent humility checks.

When things are going well, it’s easy to think it’s because of your leadership, or the company “you built.” Humble leaders always know it is a collective effort, and they are in service to that. Leadership means focusing on those being led, not the leader’s own ideas, ego, or status.

Like that climb, I needed to be aware of my surroundings and experience them so I would know how it felt and what kind of effort it would need. Whether we are in a pandemic or in a thriving economic season, good leaders are “in it” with their team. They have regular check-ins, and they try to gauge what kinds of climbs their team may be experiencing so they can help give direction, cheer them on, or just be there with them. Everyone wants to be seen and known. To do that, look at your team’s challenges from their perspective first and listen to them. Leadership isn’t always verbal.

One time when I was in a challenging part of a ride, I started to ride with poor form because of fatigue. My riding partner that day noticed and gave me some reminders to shift my posture and perhaps adjust my gears. In my mind, I was like Leave me alone; I’m exhausted. A few minutes later, he spoke up again. “Man, it looks like you are working way too hard. Adjust your gears, and let’s slow down for a bit together. I’ll ride in front of you, and you just draft off me for a bit.” Reluctantly I listened, and about fifteen minutes later, I got my legs back. We then rode another twenty miles faster than the first twenty.

Now, thinking back on that moment, I realized again I need to be open to receiving feedback and making adjustments. Great leaders listen and make adjustments—whether that is about themselves or something else.

The first time my riding partner gave me input, he waited to see if I would adjust. When I didn’t, he gave me more specific advice and then did something that had the most significant impact: he rode in front of me and allowed me to draft. This effort in cycling, depending on the wind, can cut your energy output from 25 to 50 percent. As leaders, we have the chance to help our team be more successful by serving them where they are at and lifting them up. I was able to recover and ride stronger because of the adjustments I made, but more so by the sacrifice of my riding partner. Do you help cut what your team’s up against—or are you a part of the obstacles they face?

When you are in a challenging climb on a bike, the beautiful thing about it is that if you want to climb well, you have to focus. You can’t multitask—you only have one thing to do. At that moment, I realized that I don’t always give my team my full attention. I can’t have humility, see the world from their perspective, receive input, and give the right support unless I’m fully present. That was a humbling realization! I thought about all the times recently I’ve experienced video meeting fatigue—as I’m sure we all have during this pandemic—but that is not an excuse for not being fully engaged. When we are in person, I have an open-door policy and frequent in-person check-ins. I decided I would create a virtual “open door” and check-in policy that works for my company’s culture. You might want to do the same, making sure your team knows you are available. And when you are, be present!

I realized then on that ride, I can’t be the one to qualify if I am a great leader, and that is why I have decided to ask my team to give me some input. Until then, here are some things I know for sure leaders need to do when leading at any time, especially virtually:

1) Be humble.
2) Be in it with your team; do not be at a distance.
3) Ask for and be open to input.
4) Listen more.
5) Understand where your team is at, and then give insight
6) Serve more.
7) Be Positive! Remind them that the climb will be completed; they will get to the top.

On that beautiful day, when I got to the top of the climb, I paused a bit to collect my breath, drink a bit of water, and grab a bite from my protein bar. Then I got ready for the joyful ride down what I just climbed.

Like your current and future challenges, you will get to the top too. You will gain a new perspective by looking back at the effort it took for you to do that climb and to remember what you needed to do to make it happen. And you will be even more prepared for the next time. So, when you get ready to enjoy your next downhill, you will have renewed energy for the next climb, because there will be one. That climb in many ways will be more comfortable—and probably harder in new and different ways. It will always be challenging, but if you are open to what you can do to be better, you can make adjustments. And if you take what you learn from each effort, you will get better and better. And at the start of that next ride, you’ll have what it takes to meet whatever challenges are present. Happy climbing!