Sliding down the side of a cliff
Instead of paying attention to the trail I was calculating in my mind how fast I would need to do this segment to catch up to my running partner who had gone ahead when I had stopped to “check my hydration level”.
Suddenly my plant foot slid on the side of a rock and my other foot went off the side of the narrow single track trail, trying vainly to find purchase where there was nothing but air.
Propelled by gravity my upper body quickly found itself sliding down the side of a cliff to a fall among the rocks and stream more than one hundred feet below me.
Praying like never before for something to stop the slide I spied a small stick sticking out of the side of the mountain to my right. With a concentration I never knew I had I grasped the stick while at the same time digging my heels into the loose scree.
It worked, momentum came to an abrupt halt and I was able to turn my body into the hillside and using every ounce of strength drag myself back up to the trail.
Exhausted from the pure adrenaline rush the next almost five miles were not the fastest I’ve ever run but some of the most grateful miles I’ve ever run. I didn’t have any major injuries and learned yet another life lesson running the trails of my beautiful Bighorn Mountains.
This lesson is a great lesson for every person who finds themselves in a leadership position where people are looking to you for direction, pace of work and a call to a common goal. Simply put: don’t get distracted by the calculations of trying to reach your goal and stay focused on what it will take to get there.
I study leadership and management a lot. I’m sort of a nerd that way. I look for articles on leadership and management and am constantly trying to improve my own leadership skills. After all I can’t change other leaders around me or over me in the corporate structure but I can change me.
So let’s dive into three leadership lessons learned from falling off the trail and sliding down a cliff.
Lesson #1 Setting Direction For Your Team
One of the keys to trail running is to keep your eye on the trail. It is one of the many things that bring me great joy out of running trails more than running roads. On roads you can pile up the miles and often you don’t even really have to be aware of where you are more than knowing there is a turn coming up soon and knowing where the curb is. The biggest hazard you may find is a pothole or loose junk of concrete or asphalt. On trails though there are limbs sticking out, rocks waiting to roll your ankle, different pitches to the trail and turns galore.
This is a lot like leadership. Leadership is never a straight path to a desired result. In leadership there are constant twists to the trail, obstacles strewn in your path, rolling hills where one great high is followed by an equally great low.
Throughout the trail of leadership though are people who are looking to you for direction. People want to know they are showing up to work for more than just a paycheck, they are looking to you for where to go as a team and that is why it is important for you to constantly keep your eye on the path ahead of you so you can help the team navigate the certain obstacles that are going to come your way.
Staying focused on the path you are running together is going to require that you above all, as the leader stay focused on where you are going and not be tempted to look back at where you’ve been to try and come up with solutions to today’s problems. Old, rehashed ideas of how to handle changes in the way you run an organization will not work if you want to reach a desired result. Past experience can help you to formulate plans but constant focus on what is going on today is what will get you to the desired result.
Lesson #2 Pace Gets You to the Finish Line
Pace is extremely important in trail running. I’m a novice, back of the pack trail runner. After all I didn’t start running period until I was 46 and didn’t start trail running until after I was fifty. I’m not fast by any stretch of the imagination and will probably not finish in the top ten of any race I enter. One thing I have learned though is that I have a pace and if I stick to my pace and add a little bit of push to the pace at certain times I will always finish strong. That means that really steep pitches I set a goal to run to the next landmark I can see ahead and then walk a ways. I pace myself on the long downhill portions of the race where you can pick up a lot of momentum and speed because I know there is an equally long flat or uphill portion coming up and I need to reserve some energy to reach the finish line strong.
Leaders also need to learn how to set pace on the long run to a desired result. Sometimes that means knowing the difference between pushing pace and pushing people hard and knowing when to back off a bit and allow for some periods of relaxation. The most annoying thing I find in leadership studying it is leaders who are pushing their people hard but apply an attitude of break time for themselves by taking afternoons off to “make customer calls” which is another way of saying they’re out golfing.
Leaders who know how to set pace for their teams know that their example in how they conduct their work is seen and is far more effective than just telling people what to do, when to do it and when to get it done by. A leader who is out in front can step up the pace, back off the pace and take a rest when it is needed because they are in tune with what their teams need. I don’t think there is enough written about pace and how important setting appropriate pace is to finishing strong all the time.
I talk to my team a lot about finishing strong and it doesn’t mean the fiscal year or hitting budget numbers. What I talk to them about is finishing tasks strong, following up on what they have started and how to juggle the myriad of tasks that seem disconnected but in the end connect in a beautiful way. I also set the pace for them by showing them how to work strong and complete the myriad of tasks that I need to complete on a daily basis. As a team I believe it is important to always be engaged with the people who are looking to me for pace as that is one of my main responsibilities.
Lesson #3 Break Down Big Goals
There are times that training runs are like a bear cub trying to climb a tree. You know where you want to get but you have no idea what to do to get there. Races are easy because you know that in order to finish the race you are going to need to run fifty miles or one hundred miles. Training runs, the daily practice of what needs to be done to finish a race, are much more difficult. That is why I always break down the big picture, the common goal into something I can see right in front of me. For instance my next race is a fifty two mile mountain trail race. This race is broken up into segments of eighteen miles, sixteen miles and eighteen miles. Then each of those segments are broken up into aid stations that are six to eight miles apart. In order for me to stay focused on the big common goal of finishing the fifty two mile race I break up my training runs into segments of the race. This keeps me focused and keeps me in the moment but also allows me to see the larger picture at work.
I do the same thing as the leader of my team in business. I know that the larger goal is the result we want to have at the end of the year in terms of sales, gross margin, net profit and inventory goals. However, if I tried to communicate just the big goal to my team and focused on where we were in terms of the big goal, there would be times where it would be flat out demotivating to everybody because the large goal seems to be so far off.
Instead I let everybody know at the beginning of the year what our common goal is, where we would like to be by the end of the year and even sometimes communicate to them where we want to be at the end of three and five years. This is our common goal. We know as a team that this is where we want to end up, our desired result.
Then, as a leader, it is up to me to communicate how the small steps we are taking on a daily basis will help us achieve the larger common goal. I communicate that getting received material on the shelves on a daily basis is important not just because it takes up room on the warehouse floor but also that we can’t hit our sales goal if the material is not in the proper location when order writers go to fill orders. I communicate to the order writers why finishing their tasks and pushing for an extra .01% of gross margin will help us to hit our gross margin goal at the end of the year. I communicate to purchasing why it is important that they not just place the orders but also follow up on orders as that material directly affects the way we hit our sales goals. I communicate to our operations and inventory management people why they are most important to hitting our inventory management goals and how that will affect our bottom line at the end of the year.
The difference is that in public I praise the efforts of the people who are working diligently to help us as an organization achieve our desired results and I criticize in private those people who are not pulling their weight and finishing their daily tasks that will help us achieve our desired results. The one thing that will anger me more than anything is when a leader uses their public pulpit to criticize or question why somebody is doing something and then calls that person out in a public way. Those kind of leaders need to get out of the way because they are holding people back from achieving what they are capable of.
Being a Great Leader Takes Work
Great leadership is more important than just being part of a leadership structure and involves all of these characteristics plus much more. This is why it is important when you accept a leadership position to constantly study leadership styles, techniques and ideology. When you accept a leadership position you are not simply accepting an advance in pay and a title, you are accepting responsibility for leading. When you advance and more people are added to your team as a result of mergers or growth it is even more important that you be willing to adjust your leadership style and techniques so that a growing number of people can achieve their full potential also. Leadership is not about you achieving larger bonuses or awards, it is about how you provide the people around you direction, pace and a common goal to work towards.
Hopefully, you don’t have to slide off a cliff to figure these things out and you can do it in a safe environment where everybody around you has the opportunity to live an enriched life because of the way you lead them.