EI Lessons From the Rail Trail

By Major General John Gronski (USA, Ret.)

My wife Berti had a great time cycling on a rail trail near our home. We knocked out 26 miles at a brisk pace.

Along with the health benefits and the joy of spending time with my wife, I also took away some lessons about emotional intelligence. Please let me explain.

The five classic domains of emotional intelligence as outlined by one of the premier authorities on the subject, Daniel Goleman, are self-awareness, self-control, self-motivation, empathy, and relationship management. While on the trail I experienced time in each of those domains.


When cycling on the rail trail, you must be self-aware. You must be aware of how you are feeling physically, and you must be aware of the people around you. As we were cycling along the trail, I noticed a group of five cyclists ahead of us. They were not wearing appropriate safety gear and they were unstable on their bicycles. This told me right away that they were novice cyclists, and they probably were not well-versed in trail etiquette.

I also quickly became aware of how this was making me feel. I was getting a little tense and slightly irritated because I knew we were approaching them quickly and we would have to make our way around the crew, and they were hogging the entire trail.

The lesson here is that there are many different facets to self-awareness. Of course, the topic here is emotional intelligence so we must work on improving our ability to be aware of our emotions. But we must know that our physical well-being and our surroundings also factor into how we feel emotionally.


As we were gaining on the group, they began to cross a small bridge and suddenly they all stopped right in the middle of the bridge, blocking the trail in both directions. This caused Berti and me to come to a stop and it also caused my slight irritation to grow into a much larger state of aggravation. Thankfully, because I was aware of my feelings, I was able to keep my emotions in check. We slowly weaved around the clutter with a smile on our faces, a nod of our heads, and a greeting. There was no sense in starting a “rail-trail rage” incident.

The lesson is that it is impossible to control our emotions if we are not even aware of what they are. We must master self-awareness before we can master self-control. The other lesson is that we do indeed have the power to control our emotions. It does take practice and intentionality but we humans have the ability to control our emotions rather than surrendering to the idea that our emotions will always control us.


After we started down the trail again I did not like the negative emotions that were weighing me down. I realized I was still aggravated. I then thought about the beautiful weather, the time I was enjoying with Berti and the physical, psychological, and emotional benefits of our ride. I was able to successfully move from the negative emotions brought on by the encounter with the crew who blocked the trail to much more positive emotions based on the upside of the day.

The lesson is that we do not have to allow other people to decide for us how we will feel. We have that power in our own hands. Mahatma Gandhi said, “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”


Empathy is understanding how someone else is feeling. It is helpful to gain an understanding of why some people behave the way they do. I realized a few people in that group we made our way around genuinely felt embarrassed that they did not show better consideration for others using the trail. It was clear that they were not intentionally trying to be rude, but it happened due to their inexperience. Having empathy for the group assisted me with my self-control and self-motivation.

The lesson here is that all the domains of emotional intelligence are integrated. Another lesson is that if a person cannot master the domains of self-awareness and self-control it will be next to impossible to master the domain of empathy.

Relationship Management

When Berti and I go for a bicycle ride we almost always carry a copy of our book, “The Ride of Our Lives” with us. This is a book I wrote about the cross-country bicycle adventure we took in 1983 with our 15-month-old baby, Stephen. When we come across another cyclist pulling a young child along in their bicycle trailer, we always stop them and give them a copy of the book. This always strikes up a conversation and it is a heartfelt few minutes we spend together talking about the joy of including our children in our lives.

The lesson: Find ways to engage others and find a common bond. It makes our lives richer.

Seek to Strengthen Your Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is a key skill everyone should strive to strengthen whether it be a person in a position of leadership or ordinary people looking to live a better life. People with strong emotional intelligence tend to grow trust and create a better environment for everyone around them.

About John Gronski

Major General John L. Gronski (U.S. Army Retired) is the founder and CEO of Leader Grove LLC, a leadership consulting firm. John is the author of two books, “Iron-Sharpened Leadership” and “The Ride of Our Lives” and he is an international and Fortune 500 speaker.

A decorated combat Veteran, infantryman, and Ranger School graduate, John is a transformational leader and has significant experience in business as a management consultant, where he led teams implementing large, complex projects. He now serves as an executive coach, leadership consultant, and trainer.

Learn more about John Gronski at https://johngronski.com/

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