Leadership Lesson #4: You will probably not crash to your death

leadership lesson 4

Author’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles about the leadership lessons learned while hiking Usery Mountain with my 17-year-old son.

There are parts of the trail that are steep, where you barely have a toe-hold grip. Your back is up against the cliff wall and speed (see Lesson #3) is not an option. Rather, you must progress methodically and carefully and be confident in your footing.

The only help available to you is some prickly shrubs, which frankly, hurt more than they help.

Every step you take feels risky and you begin to wonder what crazy idea put you up on this mountain to begin with. And then you stop that train of thought. Abruptly. Because it’s not helping.

Instead, you take a breath and find purchase on the mountain. Each step begins tentatively as you ease into it, then becomes confident as you feel supported by the mountain, albeit tenuously supported.

You suddenly realize . . . you will probably not crash to your death.

Thousands upon thousands of people have traveled this rugged and rocky path before you. The valley below your current narrow passage is not littered with their bodies.

No, you will probably not crash to your death.

As it is on the mountain, it is in leadership.

As a leader, you take risks. You venture out on the narrow passageway with your back up against the wall. And more often than not, things work out. You score a new client. The acquisition is a success. The unconventional employee you hire thrives.

Occasionally, however, they don’t work out so well. And do you crash to your death? No. Hardly.

What happens then? You learn from it. Hard lessons sometimes. You might even call them failures. And that’s a good thing these days. Failure is in vogue. It’s about time!

The faster you learn from your mishaps, the less likely they are to happen again. And the more transparent you are about your mistakes, the less likely they are to repeat within your organization.

And when things do work out well after you’ve had your back up against the wall and your footing has been unsteady?

The rewards are tremendous.

Sure the accolades from others are welcome, but the real reward comes from inside. When you look back across the narrow path you traveled, with all its inherent risk and potential peril, and truly acknowledge that you made it to the other side (sometimes unscathed), that’s where the deep reward is.

What are you waiting for?

You will probably not crash to your death.

Go take that risk!


Catch the full series of blog posts of my Lessons on Leadership from the Side of a Mountain.

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    leadership lesson 3

    When you think of doing something safely, images of slow, methodical, calculated action typically surface.

    Safety came in a different form for me on parts of my hike the Pass Mountain Trail on Usery Mountain.

    As I ascended the mountain, it was clear where the sporadic rains had washed away the hiking trail. In some such narrow parts of the trail, the ground crumbled beneath my feet making a hasty decent down the back side of the mountain feel like a near certainty.

    In those places, safety came as speed. Faster was safer, contrary to our typical notions of safety.

    It’s not so different at work.

    You might be racing to be first to market with a new product or service, where safety comes in market share.

    You might be racing to find a new job when something goes terribly awry with your current organization.

    You might be racing to leave a confrontational meeting or a threatening encounter with a coworker to put a safe distance between you and your colleague.

    Speed can make all the difference between feeling like we are in danger and feeling safe.

    Our sympathetic nervous system (the fancy name for our fight or flight response) governs our desire to ditch a situation and look for higher ground (or lower ground when on a mountain!). As part of the autonomic nervous system, our fight or flight response is largely automatic.

    It’s in our DNA to want to stay safe.

    Our bodies and minds have one overarching goal, whether in the board room or on the mountain: survival.

    Only through conditioning the mind and the body to be comfortable with discomfort, to consciously bring about a calm state of being, can we face dangerous situations constructively.

    When we have a handle on our discomfort and can achieve calmness in the throes of discomfort, we can use that discomfort as an important guiding force in our lives, rather than having it rule our lives.

    Leaders need to have self-knowledge and maturity to assess situations quickly and accurately and determine whether the best course ahead is slow, methodical action or rapid, swift action.  Strong leaders can still their fears and quiet their internal dialogue. From that place of stillness, they can see not only market conditions, employee engagement and confrontational colleagues, they can also see beyond market conditions, employee engagement and confrontational colleagues.

    And it will become clear to them whether to speed up or slow down.

    Summoning the calm that comes from years of yoga, meditation and other mind-body practices, I was able to assess the situation as the ground crumbled beneath me.

    On that part of the mountain, faster was definitely safer.


    Catch the full series of blog posts of my Lessons on Leadership from the Side of a Mountain.

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    Before I reached the point of being okay with my son and I hiking The Pass Mountain Trail on Usery Mountain in Arizona at our own very distinct paces, I was angry. Very angry.

    Angry that I couldn’t keep up with him.

    Angry that he wasn’t waiting for me.

    Angry that we weren’t having a mother-son bonding moment on the mountain.

    Angry that his flight back to Minneapolis was leaving in just a few hours.

    Angry that we technically didn’t have time to do the full 7.1 mile hike.

    And most of all, angry that we hadn’t made a plan before we set out.

    How many times has it happened that you assumed the other person was of like mind about a situation when, in fact, you had very different ideas about how things would go?

    I assumed there was no need to make a plan because we would be together. And, based on our speed and the time of day, we would together decide when to turn back.

    If I was with my best friend or my mom, that would have been the case indeed. But there are very few others who can read my mind.

    And so, we set off without an agenda.

    Without a plan, my assumptions took hold and ran the dialogue that played in my head: “I’m the parent here, I should be in charge. I am the responsible one and I need to make sure we get to the airport on time.  He’s flying Spirit so I’ll need to feed him before he gets on the flight. How can I be in charge if he’s a half-mile ahead of me?”

    A simple plan – before we set out – would have alleviated a great deal of angst for me (and eventually for him after he summited and reached the bottom, wondering where I was and whether he’d catch his flight).

    A simple plan would have taken just under a minute to hash out in the form of a few simple if/then statements.

    If we get separated, then A.

    If it is noon and we aren’t at the summit, then B.

    This simple, straightforward plan would have saved me 30 minutes of agony. Fortunately, it was only 30 minutes of agony. Given that he is my son, I’m predisposed toward forgiveness. Given that I quickly realized I didn’t want to waste the day being upset (30 minutes is pretty fast, at least for me), I found peace with our varying paces. And in my shift away from anger and toward the mountain experience, I assumed positive intent: he was just enjoying himself and the climb.

    It is easy to waste an entire day to frustration with our colleagues and clients over assumptions we are making in the absence of a well-communicated plan.

    Here are three steps for turning it around:

    1. Assume positive intent.
    2. Lean toward forgiveness.
    3. Vow never to spend an entire day (or even an hour) upset about something.


    Catch the full series of blog posts of my Lessons on Leadership from the Side of a Mountain.

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    Not long ago my 17-year-old son and I went on a hike on Usery Mountain just north of Mesa, Arizona. We took on the Pass Mountain Trail, a seven-mile loop around the mountain which summits about two thirds of the way along the trail.

    It wasn’t a particularly arduous climb but the intensity was elevated for us because we were pressed for time: he was catching a flight back home to Minneapolis in just a few hours. We had less time to do the hike than we would have liked.  As I raced across the mountain, numerous leadership lessons surfaced.

    Watch for new posts each day. In the coming weeks I will document twenty of them.

    Here is the full list to date:

    Lesson #1: Starting together means nothing

    Lesson #2: Make a plan; do not assume

    Lesson #3: Sometimes faster is safer

    Lesson #4: You will probably not fall to your death

    Lesson #5: Rest for a moment in a scenic spot

    Lesson #6: Enjoy the easy parts

    Lesson #7: It’s lonely at the top

    Lesson #8: Look for how things naturally fit together

    Lesson #9: Don’t look down

    Lesson #10: Don’t worry about who’s ahead of you

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    I recently went kayaking and while I was out on the water, I had these observations about the similarities between kayaking and having a difficult conversation at work:

    1. Do the hard part first. In the kayak, paddle into the wind first, if you have a choice. Size up the waterway, the wind, and any other environmental factors you are aware of and chart your course accordingly. Focus on the most difficult part first, paddling into the wind if you must.

    At work, get the hard part of the conversation over and done with first. If you’ve got difficult news to deliver, be direct and be swift (and diplomatic, of course!). You’ll also come across as more sincere. It leaves a bad impression when you make small talk for 15 minutes and then deliver bad news.

    2. You have to steer to get where you want to go. The kayak won’t naturally take you where you want to go without you being cause in the matter. You may have to paddle hard to the right to explore the cove you’ve spotted up ahead.

    And in conversation, you can’t expect it to naturally go where you want it to when you have a specific topic you need to discuss. A hope and a prayer won’t get you there.  You have to take conscious, deliberate action to move the conversation to where you need it to go.

    3. Coasting is unpredictable. Sometimes in the kayak you need to rest. Or you want to. Whether your arms ache from paddling or you just want to soak in the moment, coasting is important. But it is incredibly unpredictable. Even if you think you’ve accounted for the wind and the waves and you think you know where they will take you, you don’t.

    Likewise in conversation: when you take your eye off the target and lose focus on where you want the conversation go, you will most likely end up in unfamiliar territory.  You might really enjoy where it takes you. Or, you might find yourself treading water on a dicey topic. It can be fun. It can be dangerous. It can be both – at the same time!

    4. It will be messy. In the kayak you will get splashed. Even if you are an experienced kayaker, be prepared to get wet. Water drips from the paddle, it splashes from the waves, it seeps into your shorts and soaks the magazine you brought along to read when you found that “perfect spot.”

    The conversation will go somewhere unanticipated. It will be uncomfortable. It will be difficult. You will make mistakes, say the wrong thing, be misinterpreted. Despite your best intentions. But the trust and respect that comes from taking on a difficult topic will deepen the relationship and make the mess worthwhile.

    5. The “other guy” doesn’t have it as easy as it seems.  The guy who passes you with a friendly wave from his sailboat, looking like he has the wind at his back and hardly has to do anything to zip past you has had his own share of challenges. Sure, he makes it look easy, but there’s a lot of hard work and effort that went into that.

    And the person at work who makes salary negotiation, giving critical feedback and conducting performance reviews look easy has had to work hard to develop those skills. For most people, effectively conducting difficult discussions does not come naturally. Honor the work that has gone into learning the important skill of facilitating tough conversations.

    6. There will be unexpected surprises. You will be paddling along in the most peaceful part of the lake. You will be thinking deep thoughts or no thoughts whatsoever. And a big fish will jump right near your kayak, startling you practically out of the boat.

    The conversation will be going swimmingly. And then your counterpart shares some unknown facts or some difficult news.  Or perhaps it’s good news. Either way, it may knock you off balance. That’s okay. It’s bound to happen.  Steady yourself, take a deep breath, and listen deeply. You’ll know what to say next.

    7. Take risks. Be vulnerable. Take the life jacket off. Live a little. What’s the fun of going all the way out into the middle of the lake if you don’t enjoy the feel of the warm sun on your shoulders?

    In conversation, take a risk.  Say what you need to say, even if it may not be well received. Be courageous and speak up. Deliver the difficult feedback to the person who would benefit immeasurably from knowing. Step up to the challenge.

    8. You can go farther than you think you can. Your arms may be sore from paddling. The hot sun may be beating down on your back and bouncing off the water onto your face. You may be tired, but you can always paddle one more stroke. You really CAN make it to the other side of the lake or miles upstream or wherever you’re headed. And even farther.

    You can build more trust and more respect into that conversation and take it farther than you thought it could go. You can learn more about the other person, disclose more about yourself, and see where the conversation takes you. You can go farther in one conversation than you ever thought you could.

    9. You don’t have to be an expert to succeed. A beginning kayaker gets out onto the water and experiments. The mere act of getting in the boat, learning to paddle and making the vessel glide through the water, with even moderate proficiency is a huge success.

    And in conversation, you don’t need to be an expert at facilitating dialogue to get great outcomes. You took on a tough subject, raised a sensitive issue. That alone is something many people shirk from. You are a success because you had the courage to take it on. Bravo!

    10. It is rewarding. In the kayak, you can go places you’ve never been. And you can see sights you’ve seen thousands of times from a new perspective. You came. You paddled. You saw. The rewards are limitless.

    After the conversation you’ll be proud of yourself for initiating it. And the rewards will last long after the conversation is over. You’ll reap the rewards through your increased confidence, your track record, and most likely, a successful resolution to a difficult situation. Paddle on!

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    Having a clearly defined business strategy is at the top of the list of important priorities for most senior leaders. But overwhelmingly, that strategy does not trickle down to mid-level managers and individual contributors. In fact, research has shown that, on average, 95% of employees are not aware of or do not understand their company’s strategy.

    In a recently released study in the International Journal of Business Communication, researchers set out to learn if using visual models when communicating business strategy would make a difference in employees’ understanding and retention. They had a hunch it did make a difference, but an empirical study had never been conducted until now.

    Turns out, images (as opposed to a list of bullet points), make a big difference.

    Three key findings emerged from the study.

    1. A visual depiction of the strategy is far superior to a list of bullet points.

    The experiment in their research tested a list of bullet points against a visual metaphor (think “crossing a mountain” as business strategy with the mountain image used to depict the journey) and a temporal diagram (geometric shapes that show how processes interact with one another). Participants in the study paid more attention, were in greater agreement with, and retained information better when a visual representation of the strategy was used (that is, no bullet points!).

    2. The temporal diagram was slightly better than the metaphorical image.

    Findings were similar on several measures, but the temporal diagram scored significantly better when people’s comprehension of the strategy was checked. My guess is that the abstraction of the metaphor got in the way of a full and detailed understanding of the message. Employees might have been thinking more about the mountain than what the mountain stood for.

    3. The presenter was thought more highly of when visualization was used.

    Using a compelling visual model in communicating the strategy goes far beyond the message itself. What I find to be the most interesting result from the study is that the perception of the presenter was significantly higher when a visual representation (either metaphor or temporal) of the strategy was used instead of bullet points. That is, the presenter was rated as more prepared, more credible and more persuasive when visuals were used in communicating the business strategy. What corporate leader wouldn’t want to be perceived as more prepared, credible and persuasive?

    To be fair, it’s not easy to develop compelling visual representations of abstract concepts like strategy. But when the stakes are high and quarterly results are riding on your strategy, getting the implementation of the strategy right is of the utmost importance. Implementation begins with communication.

    >> Bullet points are easy.

    >> Text is lazy.

    >> Good design is priceless.

    Especially when your business strategy hangs in the balance.

    Want help with your strategy presentation? Contact Working Conversations today for a consultation.


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    A new research report issued by WorkplaceTrends.com, a research and advisory group, and Virtuali, a leadership training firm, identifies why Millennials want to lead and what they need to be equipped to lead effectively.

    #1. Millennials want to lead.

    An overwhelming majority of Millennials see themselves as future leaders. Of the 412 Millennials surveyed, 91% aspire to hold leadership positions sometime in their career. More than half (52%) of those who plan to lead are women. This is good news for the leadership pipeline in most organizations, at a time when research shows that only 14.2% of the top five positions in S&P 500 companies are women.

    #2. Millennials aspire to be transformational leaders.

    63% said they wanted to be transformation leaders, defined in the study as seeking to inspire and challenge followers with purpose and a sense of excitement. This is consistent with their desire to empower others, with a full 43% reporting that empowerment is their biggest motivator for leading others. By contrast, only 5% reported money as their top motivator and a mere 1% reported power as their top driving force.

    #3. They need leadership training.

    And they aren’t getting it.  More than half (55%) reported dissatisfaction with the leadership development opportunities offered by their company. With the first Millennials hitting their mid-thirties and a glut of baby boomer retirements on the horizon, companies would be wise to heed Millennials warning and get them the leadership training they need.

    #4. They want to learn online and with mentors.

    Millennials reported wanting to learn online, when asked what type of training would be most effective.  A full two-thirds (68%) reported that online training would best suit their needs.  More than half (53%) said they would like to learn from mentors.

    #5. Communication is the most important leadership skill.

    58% of the Millennials surveyed reported communication as the single most critical skill for leaders. Other research has shown that Millennials want to make the world a better place and value that over extrinsic factors like money. Being able to clearly communicate the values and mission of your organization can make all the difference in attracting the top talent the Millennial generation has to offer.  And then provide them with the communication training to lead the organization to carry on.



    What leadership training is your company offering for Millennials?


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    “I didn’t speak up. I didn’t say anything. I thought maybe I was wrong.”

    Women in business often tell me this, disgruntled and frustrated. What they say next usually follows along these lines: “I was right all along but I didn’t have the courage to speak up.” Or “My voice never gets heard. I have great ideas but I just can’t get them on the table.” In short, they didn’t take the situation head on and speak up.


    The Spiral of Silence Theory may explain why. Coined by German public opinion researcher Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, the Spiral of Silence Theory suggests that people who believe they have a minority opinion will hold back and constrain themselves. And those who believe they are in the majority will be more encouraged to speak up.

    Noelle-Neumann’s theory originally pertained to public opinion. We can look at the prevailing public opinion inside corporations and apply the theory to work life: A parallel Spiral of Silence exists within corporate culture. People feel less inclined to speak out and offer their opposition when they do not have the support of the majority. And that can make for poor decisions, costly mistakes and wasted time and resources.

    Without the support of divergent viewpoints, organizations cannot make the very best decisions – not for their customers or for their bottom line.

    What is at the root of not speaking up, of this Spiral of Silence?

    The theory contends, and I agree, that those in the majority have the confidence to speak out. Those who hold a minority opinion have a fear about being alone in their opinions. They are usually cautious and silent on the topic. In the face of others’ confidence, their lack of assertiveness grows.

    So how does one push beyond the soul-sucking Spiral of Silence? Here are three ideas to boost your confidence in expressing a minority opinion.

    1.  Take the long view.

    Pull yourself up to the view from 10,000 feet and speak from there. Getting out of the weeds of the current situation and speaking on a macro level may give you the confidence to dissent. After all, then you’re not talking about the specific issue, you’re talking about a general issue. Once you’ve been heard and understood (even if they don’t agree with you yet), you can bring it back down to the situation at hand and sway opinion.

    2.  Play with personas.

    For a moment, allow yourself to take on the role or character of someone who was confident at speaking out against the prevailing opinion. Think of it as playing Devil’s Advocate. You might ask yourself this: “If I was the kind of person who enjoyed speaking up with a counter-idea, what would I say?”

    3. Practice with a coworker who agrees with you.

    People tend to share their opinions more freely with those who have a similar approach. Practice your pitch for an alternate viewpoint with a supporter. If your practice partner can be in the room when you speak up with your minority opinion for the real deal, all the better!

    Whatever you do, do NOT sit idly by, holding back perfectly good opinions just because they are not what the majority is thinking. It’s not good for you and it’s not good for business.

    Go forth, break the Spiral of Silence and speak up.


    Have you seen someone caught in the Spiral of Silence in action? Share your example in the comments below.

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