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There’s No Leaning In On A Unicycle

Originally published: 07.01.14 by Lisë Stewart

There’s No Leaning In On A Unicycle

For women in small business leadership roles, rising to the top requires balance


As an avid cyclist, I find it easy to compare the challenges in my personal and business life to tackling the tough hill climbs, exploring new territory and enjoying both the times to push and the times to glide. This analogy was especially vivid when I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, "Lean In." 

It brought isions to my mind of furiously peddling to pick up speed, lowering my body to my bike, leaning into the curves, pressing forward and feeling the energy and sense of command. I’m strongly supported with my two wheels firmly on the ground, balance aided by both mechanics and momentum — sometimes scary, sometimes exhausting and sometimes exhilarating. 

The successful, corporate women of Sandburg’s ilk have advantages that many of the rest of us do not. Higher salaries that are guaranteed month-to-month, access to childcare and home care and a wide variety of support can make the ability to "lean in" much easier. Like my bike with two wheels, the extra support lets me ride with greater confidence and speed. 

As an independent businesswoman, running small companies and working with hundreds of businesswomen across the country, I know our experience is different. 

I recently celebrated another birthday with the gift of a unicycle. With a unicycle, if I lean in, I fall over. There is no second wheel to help me balance. I cannot lean forward or curl up to gain speed. Instead, I must stand tall, strengthen my inner core and keep my eyes firmly focused ahead of me — up and out. My hands stretch out like wings as I struggle to keep my balance — and I peddle, HARD. 

Such is the life and approach required of women who rise to the top of the small businesses that serve as the foundation of this busy nation. Rarely do we have access to all of the support that would provide external balance and leverage to develop momentum. Instead, like with riding a unicycle, the wobbles are common. 

For my fellow riders, courageously mounting an unsteady vehicle and hoping to move it forward with speed and confidence, here are the lessons I’d like to share. 

Strengthen Your Core

Understand the core values that underpin your philosophy of leadership. Recognize that as women, we lead differently, often with the desire to bring more balance and compassion to our working world. Keep your eyes focused ahead — clearly articulate your vision for the future and share it with others. Remember, where the eyes look, the body will follow. Whether it’s your body or the body of your organization, navel gazing will tip you off and the pavement will be hard. 

Lift your hands out to the side and concentrate on finding your own equilibrium and your own balance — the bike won’t do it for you. Then peddle forward, sometimes with false confidence, shaky courage and holding your breath. Momentum matters, so don’t stall — even short distances will build confidence. 

Finally, there’s the dismount. On a two-wheel bicycle, one can glide to a stop, resting on the handlebars, slowly and gracefully stretching out one foot and leaning slightly, slowing to a stop. The corporation is there with a generous farewell, the pension might kick in and the business community may well commend you for your contributions to profit and the bottom line. Well done. 

For those of us on the unicycles in life, the dismount is tricky. It takes additional planning, often searching for a solid anchor to grab and a little leap into the space in front of you. 

You’ll practice, slowing as much as you can before you can trust yourself to step forward and hoping that when your foot touches the pavement, it won’t be too abrupt. Planning is key to bringing the cycle to a graceful stop. 

As women leaders, we are often so busy helping others that we forget to plan for our own security, safety and enjoyment. 

If you’re a busy woman, leading others as you help your small businesses to grow, sometimes stepping into roles vacated by men (you may need to lower the seat, but the amount of hard peddling will be the same), consider sharing your journey with the rest of us. While we won’t be the back wheel, we’ll ride side-by-side with you — when you get the wobbles, our hands will be outstretched to help.    

Lisë Stewart is founder and director of Galliard Group, a training and consulting firm specializing in family-owned and closely held businesses, and Cirque du Sophia Women’s Leadership Forums, which serves to bring together women who lead small businesses—to learn, share their wisdom, and strengthen their cores, personally and professionally. For additional information, find us at


About Lisë Stewart

Lisë Stewart

Lisë Stewart is founder and director of Galliard Group, a training and consulting firm specializing in family-owned and closely-held businesses. She is a nationally recognized author and speaker who draws on her 25+ years of experience to share practical advice for ensuring sustainability of family businesses.

Contact Lisë at

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