Eyes on the Prize: Leadership Lessons from Peloton Coaches

Posted on March 30, 2021

Funny tweet about Peloton

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Dr. Sarah Martin, Vice President of Health Solutions at mySidewalk. Find her on Twitter @DrSarahMarie and on Medium.

What I’m Reading: I just finished The Push by Ashley Audrain, which was my choice for the office book club. Yikearoo, I’m feeling pretty bad about choosing something so heavy. It’s a really amazing book, but prepare yourselves for a wide range of emotions.

What I’m Listening To: This Motown Running Mix playlist on Spotify and the tiny little mySidewalk podcast about health we do on Anchor. 

What I’m Watching: Just finished Operation Varsity Blues and now I’m convinced I’m not doing enough to support the college dreams my children have. I know that’s not what I was supposed to get out of it, but is it weird that it somehow made ME feel like the bad parent?

I am a very vivid dreamer. In another era, I might have been the town fortune-teller, later to be burned at the stake for my claims of premonition and symbolism in dreams. I would wear an excessive amount of flowing scarves and a scent that my gentleman (or gentlemen!) caller(s) brought me from the “Far East”. The tragedy of the romance is that my powers make me an unsuitable wife for polite society. Eventually, I will be driven so mad by my divine talents and my loneliness that I will drink arsenic or something. Somehow I have just combined a little bit of Bridgerton, the lady whose head is in the crystal ball at the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, and my favorite novel of all time, Madame Bovary. 

Madame Leota | Haunted Mansion Wiki | Fandom

The night after I got my J&J vaccine, I tossed and turned in a pool of my own sweat and had a vivid fever dream. I was late to the launching of a very important airplane designed by Elon Musk. It was a big deal that I had been invited, and the invite had come from a Peloton Instructor, Alex Toussaint. I am rushing to the event in heels, the spikes of my stilettos putting holes in the grass of the football field I had to cross to get there. I don’t know why the plane was such a big deal—to me, it looked like a cartoon version of a WW2 bomber but just oversized. It was huge, like the Goodyear blimp. Its nose was sticking out of the hangar, and there were those criss-crossy spotlights in the sky. I kept running towards it but couldn’t get any closer. The faster I ran, the further away my goal felt. I kept repeating this mantra in my head (well, in my dream-head) that I love — a plant doesn’t flower by working harder. 

And so, I got on a Bird scooter. I was pumped. I was gonna make it! Technology would save me! But, the Bird was plugged into a wall somewhere. I was literally pulling a building with me via a long, orange extension cord. The scooter struggled until it eventually died. And then I woke up. 

I scribbled down as much of this as I could in the dark on the little notebook I keep for these moments. When I woke up in the morning, all I could make out was “scooter” and “Elon Musk” and “airplane nose”. So I spent most of the morning piecing together the dream’s fragments and trying to draw some sort of meaning. I settled on that my connection to technology—in my professional life at a tech startup and in my personal life as an umbilical cord to the outside world—was pervading my subconscious. Instead of taking the cynical angle and writing about how tech has drained my spirit and kept me from making it to Elon’s Plane Party, I took a far more rosy perspective. Technology is integral to my life, and when used within healthy boundaries, it can get me where I need to be.

One of the conscious inputs to the dream was probably this NYT article. It’s one of the best assessments of the Peloton relationship that I’ve ever read. Much like a Vegan, a Peloton owner has very little else to talk about. We are obsessed, and often unashamedly so. When we recruit people into the fold, 9 out of 10 of them end up as obsessed as we are. It’s not just a bike. In fact, the bike is probably (for me anyway) the least of the benefits. I’m a constant presence across all the modalities—running, strength, yoga, pilates, barre, and bootcamp. I consider myself a Ph.D. in Peloton. In waking from this dream and hitting the road for a guided run, I started to realize that over the last year, Peloton has done more for my leadership style than any book, webinar, or even real-life relationship. 

Peloton is a total curation of the mind. How can we, no matter what sector, no matter what we’re “selling”, achieve the same? How can we demand this sort of fierce brand loyalty for the greater good? I have some ideas. So, in no particular order, here are 6 things I’ve learned from my Peloton coaches that can help us be better leaders. 

You don’t have to. You get to. 

Video clip of Jess Sims

It’s funny that I started this list with the pelo-mantra that is the hardest for me to accept. I’m such a baby sometimes. I own a fainting couch—and while I don’t actually faint on it, I often collapse on it as if I’m the heroine of a Romantic-era novel. She coughs into a kerchief and figures out she might have consumption. I struggle with completing the most mundane tasks that should be easy. Things like following up on an email, returning a Slack, scrubbing the toilet, grocery shopping… these might take a few minutes out of my day, but I treat them as if they are giant boulders to roll up a hill. 

I know I’m not alone in this, and I know that the pandemic WFH life has affected many of us in ways we are just now coming to terms with. If I want to be a better leader, I have to remember to turn my “to do” list into a “get to do” list. I need to remember that each day I’m breathing is a privilege and that the tiny things I get to do can be reframed in ways that inspire. I get to connect with people all over the country via a simple email check-in. I get to help people change their communities and find what they need. I get to provide a clean home for my family. I get to wander the Aldi “Aisle of Shame” and come home with some chicken and waffle flavored potato chips. 

You don’t “earn” your dessert.

Video clip of Cody Rigsby

One of the reasons I was turned off by an irl instructor at a very large fitness chain (I won’t name names) is that he used to attempt to motivate us by saying things like, “the harder you row, the more mimosas you can have at brunch” or “stuff this run so you can stuff your face.” This is not so for my best friend of 2020, Cody Rigsby. Most of Cody’s rides are a combination of tough love and monologues on the wonders of toaster strudels and ranch dressing. He does not motivate with shame about food. He celebrates all the glory of a good Mac and Cheese while waxing poetic about Kevin being the hottest Backstreet Boy (hard disagree, fwiw, it’s definitely Nick). 

To be a better leader, we need to cultivate a culture of unearned grace and love while also holding others accountable to be their very best selves. Our employees should feel inspired to live into their full potential, not because of KPI’s or OKR’s or the promise of a bigger slice of cake but because our belief in them makes them strive for excellence. This holds for work, and it holds for our personal relationships too. I know that I am guilty of placing an undue burden on my loved ones to “succeed” instead of loving them so hard that they just want to be the fantastic people they are. Our people can never discover their untapped talents if they are scared of missing the arbitrary mark we have set for them. 

Run the mile you’re in.

Video clip of Robin Arzon

I’m actually not even sure if Robin Arzon has said this, but it’s one of my favorite mottos. I say it at least once a day, sometimes to random strangers on the street, sometimes to my dog, who I am training to jog without stopping to sniff. I think everyone is tired of hearing it… even the dog. I listened to the sentiment of this put another way by a friend—”be where your feet are.” Because we are ambitious leaders with big dreams, we can hyper-focus on the future and obsess over the plans we’ve made and the plans we’ve failed to see through. We can live in a hindsight circle, too, constantly over-analyzing our past choices and experiences and wondering whether things would have turned out better if we had just chosen path B over path A.

Take a moment to look around. Where are you right now? What are five things you can see right this moment that you’re grateful for? I’ll go first: my dog, iced coffee, cork yoga blocks, the giant tree across the street, a powerful lint roller I bought after my daughter saw it on Shark Tank. 

I struggle with anxiety. My anxiety comes from a fear of an unknown future and the grip of yucky stuff from the past. But when I stop and breathe, the effect is immediate, and it is contagious. If you have influence over your people, it’s your responsibility to set the tone. It’s your responsibility to remind them to stop and really be here in this season because you don’t get to repeat it later. No day, no workout, no Zoom meeting can ever happen again, and the next mile will come whether we like what it looks like or not. Once we surrender to that fact, we can start to settle our minds down enough to be a light of presence and role model what it looks like to try as hard as you can for as long as you can, whether you take first place or last place in the race. Either way, you still get the swag bag and the medal. 

Connections matter.

Video clip of Adrian Williams

I talk about Peloton coaches to my people as if they are my actual friends. There is no one I probably talk about more right now than Adrian Williams. I will come home from a run and say, “Oh man, Adrian was ON ONE today. Did you know he used to work at Abercrombie and Fitch as the guy at the door and his name on the schedule was Chocolate Thunder?”. 

I talk about Adrian because he is a master at cultivating connection. I have said to more than one person in my life that if Adrian and I met, I genuinely think we would be good friends. I think I would fit in well at his family bbq’s. I think he would appreciate my riff on the electric slide. For a hot second, I tried out another workout-streaming platform. I felt like I was exercising with cold, lifeless robots. They didn’t talk about their morning routine (Adrian drinks Beet Juice and Blue Bottle coffee) or how they too like to eat rice for breakfast. They didn’t admit to needing to modify their own side planks because they went too hard on the run before the strength class. They didn’t talk about their first crush being Janet Jackson and how their mom wouldn’t let them watch the music videos. They didn’t refer to their glutes as their “onion”. I felt nothing. 

All-day long, I am looking at people on Zoom. I was challenged recently by a speaker at a conference I attended who asked us, “are you really seeing people, or are you just looking at them?” Meetings blur into each other. I can’t remember if I already told the witty anecdote I am about to regale everyone with. I’m like one of those old rockers who have to write the name of the city they are in on the back of their guitar, so they don’t shout out “We love you, Cleveland” when they are in Dayton. 

A strong leader knows how to be vulnerable and human. People want to be around real people. No matter what sector we work in, we can not be influential without authentic connections. People don’t remember the perfectly manicured speech; they recall the light in your eyes when you spoke about something you care about. They remember how you rolled with the punches when the technology failed you or when your cat walked right in front of the screen. If you want people to trust your vision, you have to not only really see them, you have to let people see you

If you can’t run, jog. If you can’t jog, walk. 

video clip of Becs Gentry

Our quest for perfection can be paralyzing. I love being surrounded by high-achieving people who expect excellence. But, the tendency to beat ourselves up for an off day when our bodies or minds don’t cooperate is unhealthy. Because we want our best to be the best, it’s easy to throw in the towel altogether when we aren’t feeling 100%. Good leaders set the expectation that showing up and doing what you can, even when you don’t feel like it, is worthy of celebration. There’s no possible way we can operate at full capacity all day, every day. Our goal should be to create spaces where growth and progress are core values instead of a binary “fail/succeed”. Take a gander at your performance management goals today–are there any goals that quantify growth? Do your people have dedicated time to get creative and innovate without fear of retribution or hearing “we already did that, and it failed”? Work to set the expectation that walking instead of running is OK, as long as we are consistently moving forward together. 

Recognition is a tricky thing. 

Video clip of Alex Toussaint

What more can be said about Alex Toussaint? He is the man who got me hooked on Peloton. He is the facilitator of all of my PR’s. If I could somehow convince him to officiate my wedding, I would. True fans know that the best Alex rides are always the day after he gets a haircut and gets to see his mom. We rode with him during the pandemic when he was shooting live at his apartment, and we craned our necks to try and see how he decorates his home. We cried with him when he rode after George Floyd was murdered, and he opened up about his life as a black man. We bought the dang massage gun that sponsors him (or rather, we wanted to, but then we saw a cheaper version at Bed Bath and Beyond, and they take Afterpay so :shrug:). 

For my Century Ride (for you Non-Pelotoners, that’s your 100th ride), I took it live in the studio in NYC. When it came time for a big sprint, Alex called me out by name. He said I was a queen, and he talked about Missouri having a special place in his heart. He made me lead the pack, and I pedaled harder than I’ve ever pedaled because I didn’t want to let him down. 

Getting called out during a milestone is a little slice of heaven. Hearing Denis “if you can’t be good, be careful” Morton say my name on a live yoga for my Century Flow brought me a lot of joy. Everyone wants some acknowledgment of effort–to be noticed. BUT (and this is the tricky part), we can’t let recognition get watered down, and we can’t let ourselves crave it so much that external validation becomes our only driving force. 

We have a virtual “high-five” board in our office, and for the first few weeks, I became consumed with jealousy at all the high fives being thrown around. There is a high-five leaderboard for most received and most given, and I was determined to land a spot on both. I started giving high-fives for things that were literally part of people’s job descriptions (“good job selling that product we hired you to sell!”). I started low-key thinking in the back of my head when I did something nice for someone, whether they would throw me a high-five. It was a sickness.

Now, I reserve my high fives for special moments. They aren’t only for the professional wins but for the tiny connections that deserve recognition. They are for the coworker who spent an extra 5 minutes of a virtual coffee asking about my kids. They are for the teammate who didn’t bat an eye when I started to cry out of frustration while talking about life. They are for the crew that took time out of their daily work to plan a virtual holiday party that was actually fun. 

On the Peloton leaderboard, I’m always in the bottom third. I’m also not on the high-five leaderboard at work most weeks. Just because I don’t stack up on metrics against 25,000 other cyclists or 40 coworkers doesn’t mean I’ve failed. No matter where folks are in the distribution, it still feels terrific to be called a queen once and a while. 

Memebase - peloton bike - All Your Memes In Our Base - Funny Memes - Cheezburger

I’ve seen all the Peloton memes and heard all the snide remarks from people who ride actual bikes. I’ve seen people run away when I start to say, “it’s more than a bike!”. But over this last year, it’s been a lifeline to friendship. I drag myself onto the saddle when I don’t feel like it because I know that I have friends all over the country who are also going to be riding live. I want to be there alongside them. This last Saturday, I rode with dear friends in Maryland, Boston, and Oakland. We high-fived and texted, and FaceTimed throughout and after the ride. This little bike that goes nowhere has taken me somewhere beautiful. I think this is the most powerful leadership lesson of all–nothing is possible all alone. A Peloton is defined as a pack of people who are ride or die; even if you don’t have a bike, even if you hate exercise, I hope you find your pack in life. I hope your personal Peloton is full of people who want the best for you, who find joy in seeing you reach your full potential. And I hope that today you stop and reflect on all the other Pelotons you are a part of and recognize that the greatest gift is not a pricey stationary bike or a treadmill, but it’s your consistent presence in the lives of your people. It’s the way you make them feel. Train your mind and body for that purpose, because there is no greater responsibility.


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