Leadership Lessons from the Back of a Harley

The 77th annual Sturgis Rally showcases the diversity and inclusiveness of bikers.

Every year, a group of creative, diverse, independent-thinking individuals gather in the Black Hills of South Dakota for about two weeks to bond over their shared passion. The event could easily be mistaken for a management retreat were it not for the tattoos, leather, and motorcycles. And though it is not uncommon to find a CEO or two among the crowd, the event isn’t a management retreat at all, but instead the annual Sturgis Rally.

Believe it or not, the biker community possesses a lot of the traits considered critical for success in the digital economy, and Sturgis, the 77th edition of which runs from August 4 thru August 13, is emblematic of the type of tech culture leaders should strive to cultivate. “Sturgis is a combination of independence and community, of autonomy and collaboration,” says Janet Feldman, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession practice. “That’s exactly what digital transformation is about. Digital frees us up to be more autonomous and independent but also allows us to collaborate and connect more than ever before.”

Take the demographic makeup of the rally itself, as an example. According to the Sturgis website, The Jackpine Gypsies Motorcycle Club, the non-profit organization that founded Sturgis in 1938, has 150 members. The average age of rally spectators is 42 and the average age of riders is 23. Put another way, Sturgis is a mid-sized organization made up of Gen Xers and Millennials, just like much of the workforce.

Pop culture would have us belief that the biker community is aggressive, isolated, and homogenous. (See: “Sons of Anarchy.”) The reality, however, is much different. Feldman says Sturgis is not only the perfect rebuke to the biker image in pop culture but also a model for diversity and inclusion. Among the crowd you will find men and women of different races and ethnicities, blue-collar workers and CEOs, Ph.Ds and GED recipients, celebrities and athletes, and, yes, an occasional roughneck. An organization with a reputation for inclusiveness becomes a magnet, which is one reason why Sturgis has grown from 6,000 attendees when it started to more than a half-million attendees today. For organizations and leaders, diversity and inclusion can help attract top talent, which, in turn, can better tap markets’ potential, whether in emerging economies or among a broader set of consumers at home.

“The motorcycle becomes a justification for connection,” Feldman says. “It’s the ticket into the game. As soon as you ride up, you immediately belong. But you differentiate yourself by your own authentic expression within the community.” Feldman should know—she’s a biker herself (her Harley-owning neighbor is at Sturgis now). It’s no coincidence that the image of the biker as an adventurous risk-taker dovetails with some of the skills the World Economic Forum cite as those needed to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution, among them cognitive flexibility and judgment and decision making.

The best leaders unite workers around common values and shared passions to spark innovation and grow the organization. For nearly eight decades, that’s exactly what the organizers of Sturgis have done.