I recently supported a couple of friends who were on a multi-state biking tour. As they worked their way from the Florida Keys up the eastern seaboard of the United States, my role was to drive a support vehicle with the supplies needed to keep them fed, safe, and ready to ride.
My friends rode their bikes about 100 miles each day and, although I was only around for part of their journey, it was obvious to me that some days were much easier than others depending on the direction of the prevailing wind. On days when the wind was at their back, they rode faster and covered more ground. When the wind was in their face, everything was harder. They became tired faster and moved at a much slower pace as they cut their way through the strong headwinds.
I recently interviewed Dolly Chugh for the Leadership Lab Podcast. Dolly is the author of the bestselling book, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. She explains that, “The metaphor of headwinds and tailwinds can help to explain the invisibility of systemic differences. Headwinds are the challenges, big or small, visible or invisible, that make life harder for some but not all people. Tailwinds are the forces that propel you forward that are easily unnoticed or forgotten. Because headwinds and tailwinds are often invisible, it can lead us to vilify people who are facing headwinds.
We often confuse equality and equity. Equality means that we treat everyone the same, regardless of the headwinds and tailwinds affecting their lives. Equity means that we consider the headwinds that others face and take them into account in order to provide them with the same access and opportunities that others receive.”
Admittedly, I haven’t always been conscious of the tailwinds in my life. I’ve been quick to claim that my successes are the function of my hard work, my commitment, and my dedication. However, that’s only part of the story. There’s also an invisible hand (a tailwind) that helps me along the way, because of who I am, where I live, and the access I have. Recognizing this doesn’t take away from what I’ve done, but it does create a more accurate picture of my accomplishments.
It also helps me to better recognize the beneficial tailwinds and restricting headwinds others face in their lives. Moreover, it challenges me to act in new and different ways.
A Challenge for All Leaders
People have tremendous inherent value. Everyone is capable of accomplishing far more than we think possible. As a leader, you play a key role in tapping into that potential.
It’s essential for you to consider how the prevailing wind is impacting your people, your customers, or the next job applicant who walks through your door. But don’t just acknowledge the headwinds, look for ways to reduce them. Simultaneously, consider how you can crank up the tailwinds
Doing so will not only help individuals to achieve more, but it is key to organizational success in both the short- and long-term.
Patrick Leddin, PhD is a speaker, global leadership consultant, and The Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Five-Week Leadership Challenge. Patrick is an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University with a thriving leadership blog and podcast, and 25-years of leadership experience. He offers an unparalleled mix of academic rigor and real-world experience.