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Why Do Cycling CEOs Make Better Leaders?

A study suggests that business leaders who schedule bike rides as often as business meetings are more productive and less stressed.

When you picture serious endurance athletes, business leaders probably aren’t the first people who come to mind. Even if the dated stereotypes of CEOs aren’t accurate in 2022, modern leaders still have jam-packed schedules, which makes it hard to imagine they find time to commit to training for sports like cycling, running, and triathlons.

It turns out though, that many successful CEOs make time to full fill their endurance passions and it might even make them better leaders.

Productive Leadership Teams Often Ride Together

In a recent study published by the Harvard Business Review, researchers investigated the hobbies of CEOs whose companies were in Standard & Poor’s 500 index at the start of the year. Their search yielded 56 CEOs who had public records (i.e. articles, videos, social media posts) of their “serious leisure” interests, which the study defined as “hobbies and volunteering gigs that often start at a young age and that individuals continue to invest considerable time and energy into.”

The study’s goal was to find out why the CEOs devoted their time to these hobbies which ranged from playing guitar and DJ-ing to competing in mountain bike races and triathlons and whether they thought the activities benefited their leadership skills.

For the endurance sports enthusiasts, the hours spent training helped the CEOs in many aspects of their work lives. Here are a few of those ways, summarized from the study’s findings.

Competition Can Help You Reach Your Best Self

To survive in the business world, it’s a given that the corporate heads have a certain level of competitiveness. So it makes sense that this drive to win translates to the endurance exercise world too. The study wrote, “A true non-work passion will mean a continuous drive to improve yourself, to reach new levels of mastery.”

The study highlighted Mike Gregoire, the CEO of CA Technologies, an avid mountain biker who has finished gruelling races like Leadville’s 100-miler and the 100K Tahoe Trail ride in the Sierra Nevada. In 2016, he invited 35 of his clients to spectate at the Tour de France finish and jump in on a group ride with the Trek-Segafredo cycling team, according to Business Insider.

For the CEO, cycling events also offer a necessary distraction from work and a dose of humility.

"When you’re on the bike, nobody knows you’re a CEO. You’ll have plumbers and hedge fund guys who are out there trying to kill you. And you’re not thinking about balance sheets; you’re thinking about surviving. It’s a great distraction, and it lets creativity percolate in the back of your mind." - Mike Gregoire

Training Allows You to Detach

While many of us have a hard time getting away from work, CEOs are probably the worst. As the study observed, “Many CEOs opined that the complexity of the top job has increased dramatically, with diverse constituencies requiring their attention at any given time, and that they can never stop thinking about it, even in their free time.”

Which is why some, like Gregoire, choose to spend their free time doing intense endurance exercises that block all other thoughts out. For the CEO of PNC Bank, Bill Demchak, his distraction of choice is triathlons. In April 2016, Demcak won the CEO Challenge Olympic-distance triathlon in South Beach, Miami, finishing the 1.5K swim, 24-mile bike, and 10K run in 2 hours and 27 minutes.

Group Rides Help You Form Deeper Connections

It’s no secret that the bonds between workout buddies are incredibly strong. Chances are your cycling pal has seen you at your lowest low i.e., bonking 80 miles into a century ride or puking mid-big day out - and your biggest victories like setting a personal best.

These sort of deep personal connections can be hard to foster in the workplace alone, which may be part of the reason CEOs like Dennis A. Muilenburg of Boeing and Arne Sorenson of Marriott organise group rides and runs with their employees, according to the study.

On a recent visit to Boeing’s Seattle offices, Muilenburg (pictured centre holding the Trek) went on a ride with his staff, who were decked out in Boeing cycling kit.

Boeing Employees Kitted Out In Custom Boeing Cycling Kit

While group rides are great for levelling the playing field at least temporarily, the CEOs interviewed in the study did caution against becoming too friendly with employees that double as workout buddies.

“There is a thin line between communicating openly with a subset of one’s employees and turning them into a clique of favourites who have your ear,” the study wrote.

Only a Matter of Time

Another recent Harvard Business Review article reported that, on average, CEOs have a little more than two hours of free time in a day. It is not loads of time, but enough to fit in riding / training.

The challenge is committing to doing it every day and getting into a solid routine which is something we can probably all be better at.

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