Leadership Lesson #11: Alternate between looking down and looking ahead


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

The desert ground crumbled beneath my feet with each step along this stretch of the rocky trail. Despite my sturdy hiking shoes, I still slipped and tripped with unexpected frequency as the pebbles and rocks skittered under my feet. I outright stumbled when larger rocks protruded from the trail.
I looked down along this stretch of the trail.
A lot.
But looking down came at a cost.
The view of the next mountain range was spectacular and every moment my eyes were not on it seemed wasted. The artistically drawn reds, browns and oranges layered upon the mountain range was breathtaking. It’s majestic beauty beaconed. It was hard to take my eyes off of her.
Except for when I slipped.
Or tripped.
With each mini-landslide that crumbled beneath me or rock that unexpectedly jutted up from the trail, my attention was immediately diverted back to my feet.
And then I would miss the view, which seemed to change second by second as the late morning sun danced across the neighboring mountains.
The juxtaposition between needing to look down and the need (and desire) to look up is not different from that of leadership. Great leaders need to look down and look up.
First, leaders need to look up and out at the landscape, which includes paying attention to the industry, the marketplace, the competition and any other environmental factors that might make a difference. It also includes opening themselves to a diverse set of ideas and experiences that might prompt creative and innovative ideas. Not unlike actually hiking a mountain.
A critical part of the leader’s role is to keep a solid eye on the road ahead, including being open to new ideas and thoughts that will help keep a competitive edge, whether that be company-wide or in the leader-from-the-side’s specific domain.
Second, leaders need to look down. Leaders need to look down (and not in the pejorative sense) so they know what’s going on under their feet (in the metaphorical sense).
Leaders need to know the current challenges of the people in their organizations. They need to keep a look out for what is working well and what needs improvement. Where people and process are concerned, leaders need to be in the know.
People are counting on them to know what’s going on, at least provisionally, and when they aren’t in the know, their reputation and leadership capital are at risk.
The recipe: .
: One part looking up to see the road ahead.
: One part looking down to see the impact of your decisions.
: Blend together and serve.

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

    Sometimes on the hike, I could see people far, far ahead of me. With occasional switchbacks and vegetation growing low to the ground, it was easy to spot other hikers, including some that were way ahead of me on the trail, like my son in his neon yellow tank top.

    It was easy to wish that I was where they were. Easy to wish I had covered more ground and faster – remember, my son had a plane to catch – and that I was closer to the summit, just like they were.

    It was easy to wish I was as fit as some of those who were ahead of me.

    It was easy to wish I could hike faster, like my son, whose spirit animal is a mountain goat.

    It was easy to wish I had the hiking boots/clothes/gear of those who were ahead of me the trail.

    But . . .

    Envy has no place on the mountain.

    And it has no place in leadership.

    We are where we are, and that’s all.

    When we drop the need to compare and the feeling that we need to measure up, we step more fully into our own authentic leadership.

    From that authentic and grounded place, it doesn’t matter if

    :  a friend from college produced an award winning film

    :  a colleague who started at the same time is now a Vice President

    :  a fellow grad school student published a book/got recruited by a top firm/ran a marathon

    In fact, from a grounded, authentic place, we can enjoy their victories and accomplishments with them and cheer them on to their next success. Because we are no longer comparing ourselves to them.

    When we stop being concerned with who’s ahead of us, we can bring our focus on ourselves, which is exactly where we need it to be.

    What are my strengths?

    What do I value?

    How am I doing today?

    What do I need right now to be even better?

    Only when we get clear on the answers to these questions, can we be the best leaders we can be.

    And we can be free.

    :  Free from comparison, judgement and pretending to be something other than what we really are.

    :  Free to lead with our own strengths, values and ideals.

    :  Free to be the leaders we have developed ourselves into.

    So don’t worry about who’s ahead of you.

    Stay focused on where you are right now and lead from that perfect place.

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


    Approximately two-thirds of the way up to the summit, the path flattened and the seven-mile hike was easy for a stretch. Easier than it had been in a long time.

    My mind, alternating between awe-struck by the beauty of the mountain and distracted by the need to get my son to the airport in just a few short hours, almost missed it.

    It was my body that pointed it out.

    A lighter step.

    A deeper breath.

    A chance to look up.

    My pulse slowed, my breathing got easier, and I began to look out to the stunning views of a neighboring mountain range.

    The shift in my body triggered a shift in my mind.

    And then I realized: I almost forgot to enjoy the easy part.

    That’s what it’s like for leaders, too. We run the risk of failing to enjoy the easy parts when we are in the midst of challenging and difficult work.

    It’s easy to miss the easy parts. We get so caught up and consumed with the trials, tribulations and trauma (and drama!) of our journey that we fail to appreciate and enjoy the stress-free, easy parts.

    The easy parts are when our work feels more like play than work.  We can relax a bit and sink into the terrain more, appreciating the moment and the fluidity with which things are unfolding.

    It’s in those moments that the sweetness of leadership is felt.

    Oh sure, satisfaction is also felt in the victory of a hard fought battle for market share or the race to launch a new product or service. But that’s different. Those aren’t the easy parts.

    The easy parts are when the slope of the path underfoot evens out and the going is good.

    The easy parts are sweet because we get a chance to look up. And in that moment when we pull our head up, we invariably see things we hadn’t seen before: the opportunity to thank a colleague for their help, a chance encounter with someone in our network, or merely the possibility of catching our breath before the next leg of the journey.

    As you push forward, leading your team or yourself to the next milestone, don’t forget to enjoy the easy parts.

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    Leadership Lesson 5

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

    There comes a time on a hike in the desert when you stumble, perhaps literally, on an unexpected oasis.  When I came across this lush, green patch of grass on the north side of the mountain, I was taken aback. While the grays, beiges and browns are beautiful in their own right, the colors were drab compared to the vibrant hues that sprung unexpectedly from this protected patch.

    If you’ve been following these posts, you’ll recall that my son and I were on a tight timeline: he had a flight to catch in a couple of hours.

    So part of me wanted to rush right past this oasis.

    But the wiser side of me said “Rest a little, enjoy this sanctuary if only for a moment.”

    And so I did.

    And so should you.

    In the midst of harried deadlines and busyness it is easy to cruise right past an obvious place for a rest. When the most powerful currency is time, the rational mind becomes frugal with moments of pleasure. And if we as leaders cannot stop for a few moments and soak in the pleasure, the fruits of our labor, then we must ask ourselves what it is all for.

    This is exactly why we lead.

    For these moments.

    It might be when your team reaches a hard fought milestone.

    It might be when you see a market opportunity and jump on it before the competition.

    Or it might be with someone on your staff: a sales team member who blows away her sales target for the quarter, a new customer service manager who handles a difficult conversation with an angry customer with aplomb, or your assistant who anticipates your needs and adeptly handles situations before they rise to your attention.

    Rest a moment in those moments. Drink them in and let them nourish you.

    This patch of vitality, the lush, green vibrant grass in the middle of the desert, is what it is all about.

    And when we rush by, without stopping for a moment or three to take it in, we dishonor the hard work we’ve done and the efforts and the accomplishments of those around us.

    So take a moment.

    Or three.




    You’ve earned. It.

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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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    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’m starting to work with a fitness trainer.  This morning I did a comprehensive fitness assessment with my trainer and I gave it my ALL. I left nothing in me. Zero. Zilch. Nada.  I poured it all onto the mat, the treadmill, the weights.  At the end, I was exhausted and wobbly. And it felt terrific.

    I was furnished with an 11 page report that shows that, indeed, I performed to the very best of my ability. The pages confirm what I feel in my body: exhaustion and pride in a job well done.

    Here are five reasons to give it your all, but only sometimes.

    1. You show yourself (and others) what you are capable of. Giving it your all is a proving ground. Whether it is a performance, a workout, a sales record, a project well managed or something else, you will show what you’re made of when you put it all on the line.
    1. You can do more than you thought you could. You will surprise yourself. I certainly didn’t know I had 15 consecutive, well-paced push-ups (with excellent form, no less!) in me. I scored above average for women of my age on that section. Who knew! I surprised myself and you will too.
    1. In a word: Accomplishment. You will feel proud of yourself for what you’ve accomplished. Success breeds success. There is nothing like laying it all out on the pavement and feeling satisfied with a job well done to make you feel like getting up and doing it all over again – at some point in the future.
    1. Knowing that you used all of your gifts and talents. You will feel gratified knowing that you’ve put your gifts and talents to your best use. As Wayne Dyer says, “Don’t die with your music still in you.” When you give it your all, you know with complete certainty that you will not die with your music still in you. You are making the best music you possibly can.
    1. Create a solid foundation for the next time. Some call it a benchmark, others a milestone. Whatever you call it, it marks where you’ve been and what you could do when you were there. Down the road a stretch, when you’ve learned more and built more muscle (figurative or literal), you can give it your all again – and your all will be even more/bigger/faster than it is today. Without giving it your all today, you won’t be able to accurately measure your progress tomorrow.

    So go out there and give it your all. But only sometimes.

    Why only sometimes?

    In a word: burnout. It is not sustainable to work at that pace, that intensity, that level of performance for very long. Your body and mind need to recharge and refuel.  Whether I’m on the mat in the gym or on the stage speaking at a conference, I want to give it my ALL in that moment, to create something special, to raise the bar as high as it will go for an hour. It’s not sustainable to perform at that level all the time. Nor would any moments feel special.

    I want to give it my all and use all of my gifts and talents on the stage so I feel just as spent after presenting to an audience as I do after a hard core fitness assessment. Nothing left in me.

    And then?  A tall drink of water and a nap.

    When you do give it your all?

    Leave your response in the comments below.

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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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