Leadership Lesson #9: Don’t look down

Leadership Lesson 9

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


When you’re not expecting to be on the sheer edge of a cliff, it is even more terrifying than when you are anticipating it.

Most of the hike up and around Usery Mountain were of low to moderate challenge.  (If you’ve been reading the whole series, you’ll recall that we had an additional challenge of time pressure: my son’s flight was leaving a few short hours after we began the hike.)

So when I suddenly found myself with just inches between me and, well, gravity, I was unnerved.

Of course, I knew I wasn’t going to fall to my death.  We’ve already covered that.

As I inched along with trepidation and great care, I took a quick glance down. You know, just to see how far it would be if I did fall.

Big mistake.

It was much, much, MUCH farther than I had anticipated.

There wasn’t a switchback 20 feet below. There wasn’t anything below. At least that registered when I looked down. It was like staring into the abyss.

When you’re doing something that requires great risk, courage and stamina, I propose that it’s best NOT to look down.  At least not at the riskiest, most grueling, character-building moment.  Sure, later it is fine. In fact, then it is highly rewarding to see how far you’ve come.  But at that tender moment when the mountain is steep and when so much is on the line, don’t look down.

The same is true in leadership. When we are leading through high stakes, high risk situations – whether leading from the top or from the side – it is best to resist looking down.

When we look down and see the magnitude of the risk we are taking, most of us will get a little scared. Some of us will get a lot scared.

And whether it takes a little fear or a lot of fear to knock you off your game, you might just act on that fear and pull back a little:

:  Not execute the plan as big as you had initially intended.

:  Not run as hard against aggressive deadlines.

:  Not delegate as much to the high potential staff member.

If excitement gives way to fear and fear runs the show, you lose control.

You lose control of strategy. You lose control of tactics. You lose control of control.

So in those moments of high risk, those moments when it really matters, don’t look down. Instead, keep putting one careful foot in front of the other and take the next step and the next step.

There will be plenty of time to look down later.

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    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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