August 5, 2020

What Peloton Can Teach Us About Leadership

by Lee Coate in Covid, culture, Leadership, Momentum

I did it. It was 10 days into quarantine and the outside runs day after day were starting to wear on me. They weren’t just killer on my legs, but even more so on my head. I just couldn’t imagine weeks, which stretched into months, of hitting the sidewalks of my neighbor for mile after mile. I needed an alternative.  Which is where the Peloton came in. But let me start from the beginning.

I actually sat there staring at my laptop screen for quite awhile.  I had pulled up the Peloton website, selected the bike, added some accessories and even loaded it all into my shopping cart. Now I was on pause. It came with a pretty hefty price tag. And frankly I was curious whether a stationary bike would really be that appealing.

I got up. I went to the refrigerator. I chatted with my wife and then sat back down in front of my laptop. It was still there waiting for me in my “cart”.  All I had to do was click and I would instantly be the owner of a very expensive stationary bike. 

I took a deep breath. My wife yelled, “Click it already”.  I clicked it. 

Four weeks later a white delivery truck pulled up in front of our house. The glorious day had arrived. The techs assembled the bike, moved it into its predetermined location, gave me a few quick tips and then were gone. We were now in possession of a pretty impressive, state of the art exercise apparatus. 

But that’s where I got it wrong and where the leadership lessons began. 
Allow me to explain.

I had only been to a few spin classes before. I was way more comfortable hitting the sidewalks in my neighborhood for endless miles. For the first few weeks, I found myself gasping for breath while an instructor stares me in the eyes and barks inspirational messages to keep me adding resistance, to keep me going when all I wanted to do was stop. And … I liked it?

I realized very early on that what was sitting in the corner the spare bedroom (now converted into a gym) was an experience, that just happened to include a bike…and a lot of sweating. From the moment I hopped on for my inaugural ride, I was captured by the bright screen, the enthusiastic personality staring back at me and the crowds of invisible fellow riders who were along for this journey. 

It was inspiring. It was addicting.
It was moving. It was awesome.

John Foley, the founder of Peloton, talks about the origin story of Peloton on the popular podcast How I Build This (HIBT) and even he had an epiphany early on in in the company’s short history.  You see, he had been motivated by the inconvenience of in-person spin classes, the frustration of available classes and the difficulty to take classes with the best instructors. These frustrations convinced him that quality fitness content could be delivered virtually to homes everywhere. But what he originally focused on was the bike.  And the bike was important. It is an attractive piece of aluminum. Sleek. Quiet. Comfortable. The screen is huge and sits just at the right angle. The built in speakers deliver an immersive experience. This is all important.

But there was one more piece that Foley discovered to be the most vital. And it’s the part that immediately sucked me in.

It wasn’t the content.  Though that is amazing and effective.
It wasn’t the bike. Though the bike is a piece of art.
It wasn’t the workout. Thought the sweat pouring from pores was impressive.

It was the CONNECTION it provided.
It was the COMMUNITY that existed.

It was the EMPATHY that was shared.

Foley recognized that the best instructors with the correct personalities would be vital as Peloton began. So he recruited them by casting a huge vision and slowly built his crew who now lead thousands daily on interval and HIIT rides. 

Yes the bike is awesome.
Yes the classes are effective and challenging.
Yes the technology is top notch, the music inspiring and the presentation flawless. 

But people keep coming back because they feel CONNECTED to a particular instructor. Every peloton disciple has their favorite instructor. The connection runs so deep that daily calendars will be dictated by those instructors rides. There is a literal following that happens based on the riders connection to the instructors personality, favorite playlists, and style of coaching. 

Whether around a particular instructor or around the experience itself, COMMUNITY is forged.  The riders tags they add to their profile indicating their favorite rides or instructor. Virtual high fives fly during the ride just by touching the screen, providing encouragement in real time to the wider community who are exercising together across 1000s of miles, all pursuing the same elusive fitness goals.  Plus the entire ride is normally filled with instructor giving shout outs to those riding along.  Our motivation to grow and transform increases as we are swept up in the energy of community. 

Combining the connection to the instructor (the leader) with the community of  hundreds (the community) riding together turns something often dreaded into a “must experience” moment. Foley reflected, “I thought I was just building a bike, but I quickly realized I was building a community.” 

So what does that have to do with leadership in the midst of Covid? Everything.

I am now watching and listening to leadership who from the beginning of this season have been convinced that more and better content was the key to keeping their churches thriving during this time. Our gatherings were gone and with it, the platform from which we communicated. So we quickly “pivoted” (favorite covid word) and began cranking out all sorts of content. Online messages were a priority, of course, but that was only the beginning. Daily devotions, live instagrams, updates on reopening, and more all resulted in leaders becoming massive content machines. 

I’ve begun to sense an exhaustion there among leaders.
A fatigue. A spinning.
And it makes sense. Consistent, compelling content is difficult work.

If you want to raise your level of leadership in this crucial moment, prioritize CONNECTING with your team and building COMMUNITY with your people over simply producing more CONTENT. 

More content is NOT the most pressing need that people have right now. Instead, it is their need to see the humanity of their leaders and connect to that commonality in authentic ways. Content is always important for growth and context…no doubt. But CONNECTION and COMMUNITY are the missing links especially when gathering is largely taken away from us. Our content creation is not substitute for the connection people crave and the isolation that they are feeling. 

Those who have always been so creative with their content now must shift that same creativity to forging human connection that is so lacking.

The founders of Airbnb coined a term that was critical in the early days of their companies formation, Enlightened Empathy. It was birthed from their discovery that they had no idea what the end user of their product, in this case the rental home owner, was experiencing. It was when they actually flew across the country, sat in a room with those individuals, heard their experiences, felt their frustrations and saw their struggle, that the light bulb went on for them. As they sat with their users and watched them navigate the interface, they saw first hand the struggle with their processes. It was a disaster. But remember, disaster is the best teacher. 

Everything shifted. What they had built seemed beautiful to them, but to the user it was a nightmare. Their business would only survive if they were enlightened to those challenges and adjusted accordingly. But that empathy and response to it was not possible til they experienced it first hand…in other words, they were ENLIGHTENED

So our response may be simpler than we think. It is merely embracing a posture and attitude of ENLIGHTENED EMPATHY. And it begins with acknowledging our own struggles, worries and fears in this uncertain time. So before you just go live again on Instagram or Facebook, pause and ask the question, “How can I lean into my humanity and connect with people on that common level?” or “How do look at the needs, hurts, wants and hopes that people are wrestling with and forge community to meet them in a common place right now?” 

When I am riding with my current fav instructor Emma, her constant reminder and encouragement is, “We are all in this together.” But it’s not just the togetherness that resonates in the midst of a difficult moment. It is her encouragement to “Lean into the uncomfortable so that we can become the best version of ourselves“. I wonder how many of us as leaders are actually leaning into the uncomfortable. If I could borrow her words and tweak them just a bit… Are you leading into the uncomfortable so that you can become the leader you were called to be?’

Many leaders and pastors haven’t always felt genuine empathy for the people that sit in their seats and absorb our weekly content. They can easily become the target or merely the audience for all of our disconnected wisdom. Perhaps we didn’t allow ourselves to actually own our own feelings and communicate that authentically. That needs to change NOW. 

Because if we are honest, we are feeling the same emotions (fear, anxiety, uncertainty, shaken) that the people staring back at us each week from the seats have always wrestled with are the ones we are experiencing. They come weekly, engage regularly and yet their daily lives are filled with so many challenges. And though our messages are needed and helpful, our presence will bridge the gap between merely helpful and becoming hopeful. If we can tap into that…then maybe we have a shot at leading towards something of spiritual significance.  

People are less concerned whether your content is amazing and more consumed by their desperate need for community.

So take a pause from all your frantically “pedaling” to create your next piece of ‘amazing’ content. Slow down your cadence. Reflect. Get Honest.  Get empathetic. Get re-connected.

So Leaders, lets learn a bit from Peloton:
Create connections intentionally.
Forge community creatively.
Lead with enlightening empathy

Getting back on the bike now.

Questions to Wrestle with :

  • How much of your current energy is going towards content? Is it way out of balance with your effort towards forming connections that lead to greater community?
  • Is your team currently forming community in creative ways ? 
  • Are there clear pathways and easy steps for connection to happen ?
  • What small, simple, but powerful moments of connection can you create (think Peloton) that will forge community ?
  • How are your current levels of empathy for those you are leading? Are you emotionally and spiritually honest with yourself and your own struggles?
  • How willing are you to get uncomfortable for the sake of greater leadership and influence?

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