The Bicycle Theory of Executive Leadership

How to lead a thriving business and enjoy the fruits of your labor now

I bike. The 50 or more miles I put in on the trail each week are exercise and enjoyment, time in nature and time to reflect—and yes, an opportunity to catch up on all those podcasts I’ve saved.

That’s probably why a bicycle analogy I heard years ago has stuck in my mind. It provides a helpful metaphor I now use with nearly every business owner and executive I coach.

Here’s how it goes. If you imagine a standard bicycle, the front wheel represents your personal vision, by which you steer your life and work. The back wheel—which connects to the chain and pedals—represents the business, which powers the ride to your definition of success.

The problem is that we often reverse the wheels. We put the back wheel first, concentrating all our energy on the company we’re striving to build, and we forget to steer toward what we really want. We fall out of balance.

My Misconfigured Bicycle

I’ll be the first to admit that my wheels were reversed for most of the first 35 years I spent growing and turning around companies. At the time, I certainly believed I was focused on my top priority, my family. I was working long hours with the goal of building legacy wealth that would provide for them, hopefully for their entire lives.

And I was getting ahead. In my twenties, I made it to the C-suite, accepting a role as CFO of FPI Management. By 29, I took over as CEO and navigated a severe economic downturn to make FPI the nation’s seventh largest multifamily property management company. Then I went on to pull a struggling, second-generation homebuilding company from the edge of financial collapse to over $300 million in sales and more than 160 employees.

“But you’re missing your kids growing up,” my wife told me over and over again.

And she was right.


I never crashed my bicycle, as some overstressed executives do, but I did reach a turning point after selling my interest in the homebuilding company in 2005 and watching the housing industry collapse in 2007. I decided to seek a better balance. “Family comes first” was my new mantra—and I didn’t just mean family money anymore.

Today, I operate William Niemi Companies, a capital investment and real estate development firm named to the California Homebuilders Hall of Fame. I’m an executive coach and a Vistage chair, bringing peer advisory groups together to help others CEOs excel. And I lead HomeAid Sacramento, an organization I co-founded to assist transitionally homeless people find shelter while they get back on their feet.

I’m doing a lot professionally, but I’m also taking more time with my first grandson, Parker, than I did with my daughters at the same age. My wife gets my full attention these days, not my late-night leftovers after I stumble home from the office. And I’m kayaking and fishing and, yes, biking a lot more, too.

I’m enjoying life because I no longer put the back wheel of my bicycle—the businesses that pay our way—in the front. I’m finally steering by my values toward my most deeply held goals.

How Balanced is Your Bicycle?

I tell this story frequently because I know I should have come to these realizations much sooner. After all, I took part in Vistage, the world’s largest peer advisory organization, two decades ago. I went through a process of deep self-examination, and I listened hard to what other CEOs had to say, because I knew their advice would be essential if I was going to succeed with my first turnaround. Yet somehow, nothing like the bicycle analogy penetrated my consciousness at the time, and I lost out on a lot of years.

This is why it’s so important to identify a peer advisory group, an executive coach, and/or a business architect with a message that resonates with you and your goals. When I coach executives today, I focus on helping them discover how to work faster, easier, and smarter—how they can have more success in business, and even make more money, while putting in fewer hours. There are proven strategies to draw on (hint: one of them is other people), and other CEOs can really help clarify the vision.  

If you are a CEO interested in gaining this type of insight, contact me to learn how my Vistage CEO peer advisory group (forming now!) can surround you with the right people to push your thinking, your business, and your life to the next level.

Or if you’re an executive who prefers a one-on-one process, let’s talk about coaching. I can share the benefit of my experience executing turnarounds in crisis environments—much like today’s—so you can skip over many mistakes to achieve your growth objectives sooner, and still have the energy for everything else that matters.

I truly believe incredible opportunities are emerging for the post-coronavirus environment. If I can help you prepare, please reach out.

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