Leadership Lessons from the Birth of the Bicycle

Leadership Lessons from the Birth of the Bicycle

Two hundred years ago this week, Karl Freiherr von Drais, took the world’s first bicycle ride from Mannheim (Germany) to the Schwetzinger Inn, a distance of about five miles.

Nevermind that Drais’s bicycle, called a Draisine,  didn’t have pedals, (pedals weren’t developed for another fifty years); this mode of transportation was a spectacular discovery and the birth of the bicycle created an innovative way for people to move faster they could walk.

Drais is credited with a number of inventions over his lifetime, including the first typewriter with a keyboard, the meat grinder and the railroad handcar, still referred to today as the Draisine.

Yet it’s Drais’s surroundings and environment at the time of his innovative bicycle breakthrough that gives us seeds2lead.

Two years earlier, one of the most powerful volcano eruptions ever recorded took place in what is now present day Indonesia, half a world away. Volcanic plume rose almost 50 kilometers into the sky and hundreds of millions of tons of volcanic dust moved to “cloud” planet earth.

The effects on the global environment were profound. A dry fog dimmed the sunlight in parts of the USA to such a degree that sunspots were visible to the naked eye. Global temperatures dropped significantly, monsoons were disrupted in India and North American and Europe experienced the “Year without a Summer”.

This led to failed crops in much of Europe. Grain and food prices rose astronomically and thousands and thousands of horses were slaughter because they were too expensive to feed and food of any kind was needed.

It was the worst famine of the 19th century.

These were the constraints and conditions of scarcity that triggered Drais’s creative insight to invent his “walking bike”, an inexpensive and practical alternative to the horse.

Yet as remarkable and profound as Drais’s invention was, he wasn’t the first or the last person to innovate during difficult times.

Hewlett-Packard got its start during the Great Depression. DuPont discovered nylon in 1934. Skype, Uber, and Airbnb weren’t created in billion dollar laboratories swimming in resources, but rather through the inspiration, sweat and constraints of boot strapped start-ups.

When we track innovation patterns and observe periods of highly effective leadership, we will find that they are often triggered by an overwhelming challenge, scarcity or disaster.

This is what we must remember. Real life (and real leadership) rises in the face of overwhelming challenge. This is what makes a life worth living. We must not let such conditions discourage us, cripple us or defeat us. It is not how many times we fall that matters, only that we continue to stand up.

Certainly there were people that laughed at Drais and his strange contraption; much like Elon Musk has his critics, even today as Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity change entire industries.

It was Reg Revans, one of the world’s great innovators who said, “unless your ideas are ridiculed by experts, they are worth nothing.” Criticism from the status quo is a constructive reminder that we are travelling on a road less travelled, and it could be the road that makes all the difference to your team, your customers and your business.

Here are three ideas to help you succeed in the face of an overwhelming challenge:

  1. STOP look looking at challenging situations as good or bad or right or wrong. Remove the judgment from your thinking process and instead ask, what’s useful about this situation? What would be a contrarian way to work through this? What are most people thinking and how could I look at this in a different way?
  2. FAST FORWARD into the future and imagine that you’ve mastered this situation in a positive way. What is it that you learned from that situation (looking back) that is helpful and valuable for you today?
  3. SEARCH for similar situations, perhaps during other times, in other industries where something similar happened and ask what you could use from these examples to move you through this situation.

And above all, STOP TRYING TO FIX THE PROBLEMS you encounter. Look at the problems and challenges you face and SEEK TO IMPROVE them, and dramatically. We desperately need leaders that don’t just seek to fix things, but to improve things, and in big ways.

While I thoroughly enjoy riding my bike to work; the leadership lessons I take from Drais’s experiences help propel me not only to work, but to also to lead myself and others through the amazing challenges of life.

What are you waiting for? Go get on your bicycle today and start thinking differently about the challenges you encounter.

Contact Information

Dan Norenberg
Wensauerplatz 11
81245 Munich
Phone: +49 172 862 5123

About Dan Norenberg

Dan Norenberg improves leadership performance and organization results through Executive Ownershift®, his transformational growth process for executive teams. As a trusted advisor, consultant and professional speaker, Dan’s mission is to enable executive teams and their organizations to play at their best.