The only way to get off a bull

In mid-February, I stepped down as president of Wycliffe Canada after 11 years. Over the previous five months, after I concluded it was time to move on from this role, I thought often about the analogy of Leadership as bull riding that I unpacked in my last post.

Shawn Bellows operates Bull Riding 101, a backyard school that teaches the fundamentals for aspiring bull riders. He says, “A lot of people think you just hang on and make ugly faces for eight seconds… But there’s body position and an art to being in the right spot at the right time.” Interesting parallels to leadership there: some just hang on, and some groan and moan about the challenges of leadership. I long to see leaders who can lean into the twists and turns, and position themselves well.

What I want to talk about here and in a number of future posts is the art of walking away. A successful bull rider not only survives the full eight seconds, but hopefully pulls off a great ride and then walks away with his head high. The problem is that a 2,000-pound bull doesn’t just stop like its mechanical cousin when it runs out of coins. Mr. Bellows offers this sobering thought:

“The only way to get off a bull is to buck off.”

So perhaps the most critical skill for any bull rider is to know how and when to dismount. Ideally with a planned dismount, in which the rider picks the right moment and then executes a rehearsed plan to slide off, landing on his hands and knees and crawling quickly to safety. This is a dangerous moment, when a number of things can go wrong: the rider might not be able to free his hand from the rope, he may be tossed or land badly, or the bull might come after him.

How does a leader “buck off” gracefully? When I announced last September that it was time for me to move on from the top role, I was committed to finishing well, but it wasn’t as smooth as I was hoping it would be. I’m learning that my experience is more common than I’d like to think. A young friend leading another organization sent me this note after learning of my plans:

I haven’t as much experience as you but in all my transitions even though my heart has been trying to help in every way to make smooth but unfortunately boards and leaders don’t always see it that way. My biggest hurts that I’ve worked through as a leader have been trying to leave well and not being “allowed “ to do so. Wish I had an answer for you – but am praying for you!! I am not aware of very many smooth and healthy transitions in our line of work.

I’m still working through what it looks like to land well and move on, but a blog is far too public a way to process it. I think my friend said it well: leaders need to be praying for each other, in beginnings and endings.

Bull Riding 101: How to get off,  article by Ann LoLordo, Baltimore Sun, Sep 21, 1995

Bull Rider Coach – The Dismount, video by Dustin Elliott and Wiley Petersen,, Nov 27, 2014