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There’s No ‘Leaning In’ on a Unicycle

As an avid cyclist, I find it easy to compare the challenges in my personal and business life to tackling the tough hill climbs, exploring new territory and enjoying both the times to push and the times to glide.

This analogy was vivid for me as I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In.” It brought visions to my mind of furiously pedaling to pick up speed, lowering my body to my bike, leaning into the curves, pressing forward and feeling the energy and sense of command. I feel strongly supported with my two wheels firmly on the ground, balance aided by both mechanics and momentum—sometimes scary, sometimes exhausting and sometimes exhilarating.
 
Writers before me have pointed out that the successful, corporate women of Sandburg’s ilk have advantages that many of the rest of us do not. Higher salaries that are guaranteed month-to-month, access to childcare and home care and a wide variety of support can make the ability to “lean in” much easier. Like my bike with two wheels, the extra support lets me ride with greater confidence and speed.

As a businesswoman who helps run small companies and works with hundreds of businesswomen across the country, I know that our experience is very different. I recently celebrated another birthday with the gift of a unicycle.
 
With a unicycle, if I lean in, I fall over. There is no second wheel to help me balance. I cannot lean forward or curl up to gain speed. Instead, I must stand tall, strengthen my inner core and keep my eyes firmly focused ahead of me—up and out. My hands stretch out like wings as I struggle to keep my balance—and I pedal, HARD! Such is the life and approach required of women who rise to the top of the small businesses that serve as the foundation of this busy nation. Rarely do we have access to all of the support that would provide external balance and leverage to develop momentum. Nope…like with the unicycle rider, the wobbles are common. For my fellow riders, courageously mounting an unsteady vehicle and hoping to move it forward with speed and confidence, here are the lessons I’d like to share:

Strengthen your core—understand the core values that underpin your philosophy of leadership. Recognize that as women, we lead differently, often with the desire to bring more balance and compassion to our working world. Keep your eyes focused ahead—clearly articulate your vision for the future and share it with others. Remember: Where the eyes look, the body will follow—whether it is your body or the body of your organization. Navel gazing will tip you off and the pavement will be hard. Lift your hands out to the side and concentrate on finding your own equilibrium and your own balance—the cycle won’t do it for you. Then peddle forward, sometimes with false confidence, shaky courage, and holding your breath. Momentum matters, so don’t stall—even short distances will build confidence.
 
Finally, let’s talk about the dismount. On a two-wheel bicycle, one can glide to a stop, resting on the handlebars, slowly and gracefully stretching out one foot and leaning slightly, slowing to a stop. The corporation is there with a generous farewell, the pension might kick in and the business community may well commend you for your contributions to profit and the bottom line. Well done.

For those of us on the unicycles in life, the dismount is tricky. It takes more planning, often searching for a solid anchor to grab, and a little leap into the space in front of you. You’ll practice, slowing as much as you can before you can trust yourself to step forward and hoping that when your foot touches the pavement, it won’t be too abrupt. Planning is key to bringing the cycle to a graceful stop. As women leaders, we are often so busy helping others that we forget to plan for our own security, safety and enjoyment.

If you are a busy woman, leading others as you help your small businesses to grow, sometimes stepping into roles vacated by men (you may need to lower the seat, but the amount of hard pedaling will be the same), consider sharing your journey with the rest of us. While we won’t be the back wheel, we’ll ride side-by-side with you—when you get the wobbles, our hands will be outstretched to help.

Lisë Stewart is Principal-in-Charge of EisnerAmper’s Center for Family Business Excellence within the Private Business Services Practice. Lisë has experience in organizational development, strategic planning and training, and human performance management.

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