Why It’s Important To Relax Your Grip As A Leader

Prashant Fonseka is a partner at early-stage VC, Tuesday Capital.

The most important lesson from my motorcycle training applies to most of life, especially investing. When riding, stiffness is the enemy. New riders, unsurprisingly, tend to tense up while piloting their fun and fast machines at stops and turns (the worst possible moments). This is why the most common phrase I heard from my own motorcycle instructor was, “Relax the grip.” The same goes for venture capitalists.

Oftentimes, startup investors take a stiff, controlling grip on their investments. But this only leads to angry founders and disgruntled investors, so I always stress to other VCs how important it is to relax their grip on the portfolio.

Indeed, I find that being loose is key to fluid, competent and (relatively) safe motorcycling and leading. Why? Consider this: The way one turns on a motorcycle can, at first, seem counterintuitive, as you turn by countersteering. The stiffer one’s body, the harder one needs to push. But the opposite is also true; the more relaxed the rider, the easier it is to make the turn. In fact, I’ve seen that experienced riders can typically complete most turns by simply shifting their weight around a bit. I believe the reason for this is equal parts physics and psyche.

The same effect that keeps a motorcycle upright at speed also keeps the motorcycle tracking straight. To make the motorcycle turn, one needs to shift the motorcycle’s center of mass to one side and forward. Crucially, just moving to one side won’t necessarily change direction. On a highway, I can pivot my body side to side, which will make the motorcycle lean, while continuing to drive straight.

Why Relaxing Your Grip Is Essential In Business

It’s worth taking a moment to discuss the physics of steering a motorcycle because these same dynamics are true for investors. Outmuscling the handlebar is not a solution for making smoother turns, just as strong-arming founders are not the way to steer a business. I’ve watched in board meetings as investors try too hard to push a company in a certain direction, even if it’s against the momentum. This rarely ends positively. Investors must be able to guide founders and their companies in the correct direction by working with the larger machine to influence its direction with subtlety and grace.

In the past few weeks, I have been around a number of people who are on difficult journeys of sorts. They are talented people with the right skills and resources. Some are in business, while others are spiritual teachers or at the intersection of the two. I myself have been going through an intense period professionally. I want to tell everyone what I’ve been telling myself: Relax the grip.

It’s no shock that anxiety beyond the level of motivation can be counterproductive. That is especially true for people in positions of leadership. Like being on a motorcycle, tensing up can lock you into your inertial path and take away your ability to change direction and adapt to the environment. Similarly, tensing up in a contentious work meeting or with a challenging founder or client has the same effect. When stressed, I believe one loses the autonomy to steer both themselves and others. The first instinct for many when the going gets tough is to clench their fist and batten down the hatches. But this gives, at best, a false sense of control.

Learning To Let Go And Focus On What Matters

As an investor, it’s easy to fixate on a problem and consequently feel compelled to correct it in the most efficient way possible. But after nearly a decade in the VC space, I’ve learned that investors who face problems must exert subtle, balanced movements to correct them. Trust your intuition, and gradually shift your weight around to make the ride as smooth as possible. This isn’t always particularly efficient, but I find it pays dividends in the long run. Just like learning to ride a motorcycle, this type of movement isn’t instinctual; it’s practiced, honed and refined until it feels natural.

I would argue that this perspective also extends beyond investing, beyond the corporate world and across everyday life. I believe relaxing the grip has the same effect in relationships, negotiations, communication and virtually every other part of human existence. This isn’t to say “let go” and stop trying, but it’s meant to express the power of subtlety and calm decision making. Making a huge life decision when you are tense about some external factor is equally detrimental. 

There is a myriad of ways to work toward achieving this mindset, but my favorite is meditation. Taking 10 minutes out of the day to calm your mind allows you to assess what is truly important and deserving of your time (or anxiety). I’ve found that mediation makes me less likely to respond instantly to things that I might consider a problem with tense, rigid solutions. I believe a calm mind makes better decisions, and meditation has proven to be one of the best avenues I personally can use to get there.

I’ve always assumed the best leaders stay calm in trying times, but I now see why. It really is just like being on a motorcycle: Staying loose, calm and relaxed affords the greatest control over yourself and your business.

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