By Thomas Day
Supposedly, there are three kinds of wolves: alpha (leader), beta (follower), and solo or lone wolves. Most of my business career I spent as some kind of manager, which might make you suspect that I am an alpha-sort. There are some bits of evidence that would probably contradict that assessment. An experience in a recent motorcycle course with an actual alpha reminded me of how far from that guy I am.
In 30 years of management, I probably called no more than a half-dozen meetings because I have always believed that meetings are what lazy managers do instead of talking to people, individually, where you can get their honest, un-pressured opinions. Also, I hate meetings. I absolutely believe in Dave Roth’s “crowd rule” that says you can divide the IQ of the smartest person in the room by the number of people in the room to get the crowd IQ. Why would I hire smart people, then force them to sit at a table and be stupid?
The same goes for packs or groups of motorcyclists. Individually, most of the people I know who ride a motorcycle are pretty interesting. Even the hippobike crowd has a fair number of members who do interesting things, can surprise you with their intelligence and insight, and tell great, funny stories. In a pack, they’re about as funny and entertaining as a pack of rampaging Comancheros who just broke into a 55 gallon barrel of rotgut whiskey, but they can be actual human beings in small quantities.
As difficult as this might be to believe, I hate conflict. As a manager, I tried to enforce my own version of the “no assholes rule” and I fired people who violated that rule as quickly as I could identify them. Firing people sounds like conflict, but one bad hour is a lot less painful than months of disagreement, disappointment, and team dissolution. I look at a non-performing team member as someone who is dragging the rest of the team down and the good of the group overwhelms my inconvenience and discomfort. The hour I take firing someone pretty much screws up the rest of my day or week, but I get over it. If I don’t do it, I’m screwing up everyone else’s weeks until I bite the bullet.
The whole group ride thing begs for otherwise pretty decent people to show off their asshole sides. Either by pretending that maintaining the spacing is important and playing “formation enforcer” or by showing off real or imagined skill that puts other riders at risk, the alpha assholes in a group ride are encouraged to bark and howl. I’ve tried a couple of these rides, on and off-pavement, and the magnetic pull of going somewhere else always takes control of my bike until I’m on my own on a road to nowhere anyone else is going. It only takes a couple of seconds of exposure to the group riding asshole to fire off my escape magnet. There must be some kind of reward for staying in the pack, but it escapes me and I’m perfectly happy to be escaping the pack.
You’d think that teaching would be an alpha dog kind of thing, but it doesn’t have to be. Adult education is pretty much student-driven. Lectures are minimal, the assumption is that students have pre-read the materials that will be discussed and will have questions about what they didn’t understand or would like to explore further. The “sage on the stage” routine is for teaching little kids and I’d rather explore extensive dental work than stand in front of a room full of kids. Bored or disinterested adults are even less inviting as a student audience and a big part of the reason I retired from what should have been the best teaching gig on the planet–teaching recording engineering, equipment maintenance, and acoustics/physics–was because 90% of my students were there because they didn’t know where else to be. Unlike them, I never have a shortage of places I’d rather be than bored and disinterested, so I handed in my whip and chair and went somewhere else.
I got a reminder of all of this stuff when I taught a motorcycle class at a school where I haven’t been for several years. Where I usually teach, we’ve been calling this place “the wild west,” because pretty much all of the MSF guidelines and “best practices” had been tossed out the window for instructor convenience. Most of those rules/guidlines are designed to keep the training safe for both the students and instructors and the rest are to maximize the learning experience. Blowing them off because they are inconvenient or boring or require a little extra work is an alpha dog kind of thing and deciding the other coach is going to go along with that decision without question is really alpha dog’ish. What I learned from the experience was that I’m not a willing follower and I’m not interested in being a leader and my preference when exposed to either option is to head out on my own.
Which, I guess, means I’m a lone wolf/dog/guy. No surprise, I suppose. I can’t remember the last time I was on a ride with someone and at some time didn’t wish I was somewhere else. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t end up somewhere else when I started the trip with another traveler. It’s not that I mind the company, it’s that I dislike the complications. The best trips I’ve had with a friend have involved a brief discussion of where we’re going to end up/meet and a quick split-up immediately afterwards. Usually, we meet at the designated place at the assigned time, but if that didn’t work out we’re both adults and can manage our lives alone and we do that. No whining, no power plays, no aggravation, we just didn’t end up at the same place for whatever reason and moved on from there. Motorcycles are, by design, a one-person vehicle and I think they are best experienced alone. Cars, buses, trains, and planes all have comfortable seating, are reasonably quiet spaces, and are nicely designed for conversation and socializing. If I want that, I’ll leave the bike at home.