Biking to Alaska, and Learning Leadership Along the Way

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The distance between Austin and Anchorage, Alaska, measures 4,000 miles. Every summer, students at The University of Texas at Austin who have been selected for the ride pledge to cross that distance, volunteer for at least 50 hours in their communities, raise $4,500 each for cancer research, and take an active role in planning the journey as part of the Texas 4000 program. Though the trek itself is 70 days, with all the extra activities, the overall program lasts 18 months. To succeed, the bikers need wilderness survival skills, first aid training, and the ability to lead and work as a team.

“The program is about far more than fundraising and a very long bike ride,” says Eric Hirst, associate dean for graduate programs at the McCombs School of Business and member of the Texas 4000 board of directors. “It’s about becoming a leader and a better person along the way.”

The bikers head to Anchorage along one of three routes through the Sierra, the Rockies, or the Ozarks. Along the way, they stop in big cities, small towns, and national parks — relying on community members or camping for shelter — and spread awareness about cancer prevention.


A group of McCombs Texas 4000 participants prepare to bike to Anchorage, Alaska. “I’ve seen all of my teammates, especially the ones with leadership positions, improve in their communication, interpersonal skills, organization, public speaking skills, and much more,” says Tatiana Jessen, BBA ’17.

This year’s trek, which ends Aug. 7, provides plenty of opportunities for the cyclists to gain leadership and teamwork skills as they face challenges, such as navigating around bad weather and staying positive after a hard ride. To prepare them, Texas 4000 also required bikers to participate in management and leadership training sessions before they ride out from Austin. Several professors from the McCombs School of Business helped provide that training, and here is some of the advice they offered:

Offer Reciprocity for Support

Janet Dukerich, professor, Department of Management

“I did a brief session on negotiation, and we talked about the challenges that the bikers would face trying to convince businesses along the way to contribute free goods and services to support their cause — for instance, convincing a restaurant owner to provide a free meal or a store owner to help out with bicycle parts. People tend to be more willing to say ‘yes’ when reciprocity is involved, so if the bikers could offer something in return — like volunteering an hour of their time to pass out flyers advertising the business or wearing signs showing how the restaurant or store owners supported their cause — then they might be more likely to get agreements.”

Forgive and Trust Your Teammates

John Daly, professor, Department of Management

“We chatted about the value of trust in teams and laid out some of the things that you can do to build trust. These folks are riding together for a long time, and if distrust and disrespect enters, then it won’t be a fun ride. We also talked about the value of forgiveness. It relates to trust but is often a separate thing. We also talked about maintaining a sense of purpose. Motivation is important, but motivation without purpose doesn’t get you very far. Remind yourself regularly about why you are riding.”

Ensure All Teammates Participate

Luis Martins, associate professor, Department of Management

“I did a session on leading teams for the Texas 4000 group. My advice was that they should allocate roles within their team, take steps to ensure that all team members participate, watch out for dysfunctional conflict, adopt an inquiry or problem-solving mindset in solving issues that arise, and communicate effectively in order to produce the best outcomes and avoid dysfunctional team dynamics such as groupthink.”

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