18. Domesticated Service

Will you picture something for me please? I want you to picture yourself at your desk. It’s getting near the end of long, grinding day and you are looking forward to taking a joy ride in your new convertible straight after the workday. Now, in the minutes before you are ready to leave, your boss bursts into your office. She’s breathing heavily and explaining that she’s late for a pressing meeting, an uber-important summit. She wants to take your car…now! She tells you that you can find your way home and if you were a real company man you’d hand over the keys immediately. Got the picture? That’s the world of competitive cycling.

Welcome to Swimming in the Flood; a podcast where develop the resilient leader’s mindset by navigating difficult currents in business. My name is Trent Theroux.

I received a recent request from a constant listener who wanted to know if I had some thoughts for developing resilient leaders who are just entering the workforce. And my answer is yes. Yes…hand her the keys to your car. Let me explain why.

The past weekend the most grueling event in sports commenced, the Tour de France; a 21-day, 2,162 mile race through the countryside and mountains of France – and a little bit of Belgium this year. Many of you might view this event as a pack of really skinny guys in colorful spandex moving as one giant blob with rabid fans trying to run alongside. Well, you’re not far off.

But, do you know how a team functions in the Tour? It may be helpful in understanding how we need to develop as resilient leaders, at all stages of our development. The general classification rider is the team leader. This is the individual for whom the team strives to put in the position to win.  There are specialists like the sprinters and the climbers who are afforded the opportunity to attempt stage wins. Then, there are the domestiques.  Domestique is French for servant. Think of the domestique as the individual learning to become a resilient leader. That rider’s responsibility is to serve and protect the team leader. If the team leader needs water, you give him yours. If you are out of water, you drop back to the team car, get water, sprint back to your leader and hand him a bottle. If he wants the granola bar you’re eating – fork it over. During the ride, you are directly in front of the leader. Drafting is when one rider is directly behind another. Drafting reduces up to half of the wind drag from cycling. The team leader gets a free ride while you do the hard work.  You work as hard as you can, for as long as you can and give your team leader the best chance to win.

And, if your leader’s bike breaks or has a flat – without hesitation – you hand him yours. That’s the job.

Starting out in the world is very much like being the domestique; thankless work at the bottom of the ladder. You’re the one helping schlep the bikes with the team mechanic while the leader is on the podium kissing the pretty French models.

But, young resilient leaders here is the good news. The business world, like the Tour de France is an egalitarian society. If you hone your skills properly you can become a sprinter or a climber on the team, or if you become skilled in both you can become the leader with a shot at winning the yellow jersey.

I am now going to give you my unscientific, non-peer reviewed, resilient leader theory on being a domestique. Are you ready? Got your pencils out? Here it is: Look for the elevation markers. You heard it. Look for the elevation markers. This theory has been endorsed by one Japanese, hot dog engulfing, sport changing pioneer.

The theory is simple. Here’s how it works. Ten years ago, I competed in Ironman Nice, in Nice, France. By the way, if you ever want to sell a spouse on a vacation promise to take them to the South of France for a week, all you ask for in return is one day to yourself. Works every time. Ironman Nice is noted in the Ironman circuit for having the most elevation, over 11,000 feet of climbing in total. Now, the race is 112 miles. The first 20 coming from the Mediterrean are as flat as the Mediterranean. The same for the returning 20. The middle 70 are broken this way. 35 straight up. The rest descend. So, all this climbing happens within a very short range.

Many of you know that I am not the slightest man in the world. I am a little thicker around the rump and thighs. My uncle used to call me the Crisco Kid. In short, my body was not made for climbing mountains on a bicycle. Yet, in the late June heat I was out there grinding away. The longest climb of the day was three thousand feet. To put that in perspective, it is the same as scaling the Eiffel Tower three times. The climb that would test everything I had.

The bottom of the climb is exceptionally steep with a grade of near 14% and is a place for hundreds of spectators shouting “Allez, Allez,” “Go, Go,” and similar in other languages. I pedaled through. And pedaled.

Near the middle of the 24-kilometer climb, I was passed by Marie from Norway. She was 25 and this was her second Ironman and the hills here aren’t as difficult as those in Norway and she really liked the pre-race dinner and she likes puppies and duckies. Did you know that she loves duckies? I learned all these things because she was giving an interview to the Ironman media while passing me on a 7% gradient.

I felt my legs first crack just as I noticed a stone marker on the side which read 7-5-0-M. I wasn’t quite sure what its meaning was. Mile marker of some sort. I got distracted when I was chicked by a man named “Fifi” Everyone’s name is printed on their racing number to the fans can call them out. Fifi roared by me as if I was standing still.

I put my head down and kept pedaling. Then I noticed a stone marker reading 7-5-5-m. These weren’t mile markers they were elevation markers – markers indicating how high up we were. My mind raced to calculate that this climb would be nearly 1,000 meters. I was only three quarters of the way up and feeling hopeless about my prospects to ascend. 7-6-0-m these stone markers were taunting me in 5-meter increments. Each one more painful as I passed.

Then, resilient leaders, something in my mind switched. I no longer thought about getting to 1,000, I thought about getting to the next elevation marker. If I can just make the next elevation marker, I’ll worry about the balance of the climb from there. I started counting towards the elevation markers 750, 790, 830, 910, 965 and I crested the climb.

By breaking my task into more manageable assignments I was able to complete what I thought might be impossible. Young resilient leaders – you are now on your climb. Put your head down. Pedal hard. Count the elevation markers. You will get there.

Let me make one comment about the downside of this climb. It’s fun, but by no means easy. You have to be agile and have vision to navigate the steeply pitched switchbacks. The elevation markers are still there on downside of the mountain. They still measure in 5-meter increments, but when you have momentum on your side you don’t seem to notice the same way.

Lastly, while being 50 pounds lighter than me may have helped Marie on the ascent, gravity did her no favors on the decent as I passed her 2 hours later. I quacked as I passed her, in Norwegian of course.

Folks, thank you for listening to Swimming in the Flood. Resilient leaders face challenging currents and it is tough navigating, but with one tack or another we can get there together. You can find more podcasts and videos on my website at www.trenttheroux.com.  Music today is from Bensound. If you enjoyed today’s show, please tell a friend, share the link on your social network…subscribe. I would be happy to discuss speaking at your next conference or event. Just write to me at info@trenttheroux.com. Send me a quick message if you have an idea that needs to be looked at through a resilient leader lens.  Thanks again for listening. I look forward to getting together next week.