Leadership Lessons at 12,000 Feet

There’s nothing quite like the Colorado Rockies in the winter.  I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days skiing on Copper Mountain.  It was quite cold but the views were beautiful.  Since I don’t ski regularly, I typically take a lesson on the first morning to get my ski legs back under me.  Dennis was my instructor.  And while his teaching was instrumental to me while I was wearing skis; the leadership applications really stuck with me.  Dennis often said, “You have two options.  The first is good job, way to master that principle.  Or good luck, as in, you’re on your own making it down the mountain in one piece!”  You know, the same can be said for leaders.  We can focus on mastering the principles of effective leadership or good luck getting our team to succeed.

So what are some leadership lessons from the slopes? Consider these three principles:

Small Details Matter
Dennis often made the comment that the altitude of the mountain doesn’t matter.  Gravity always wins so the key is mastering the basics to get down the mountain safely and to have fun.  In skiing, those basics focus on posture – hands slightly extended from the body; leaning a bit forward versus standing straight up; and maintaining a loose stance for flexibility.  Leadership is no different.  In your world, what are your basics?  Does your team have clear expectations? Do they receive regular ongoing feedback from you?  How well do you remove barriers for them?  How well do they trust you?  These are BIG basics but they matter one step at a time in the effectiveness of your team.

Everyone Learns Differently
We had seven skiers in our clinic and every skier was different in her experience, confidence and ability.  And Dennis knew that.  Throughout the lesson, he ensured he rode the ski lift with each participant individually so he could have one on one time with each of us.  That 5-10 minutes allowed Dennis to give individual attention, instruction and feedback.  He praised our progress and reminded us of one area to focus on during the next run down the mountain.  He praised the group as a whole as well which often became our pep talk but the real instruction always occurred individually.  Your team is no different. Each employee has different backgrounds, experiences, skills, and deficiencies.  They need that one on one time with you but in a way that relates to their uniqueness.  It’s how performance blooms.  Dennis is an expert skier but he adapted his message so he could related to us and us to him.  Leaders must do the same.

Glancing and Gazing
Finally, Dennis helped our perspective on the mountain. He reminded us that when a skier is worried about who is coming down the mountain behind them, they will focus too much looking backward they fall forward.  Instead, he told us the importance of glancing back (looking up the mountain quickly like you would do pulling your car onto a street) but your primary focus as a skier is always looking ahead.  This concept really stuck with me as a leader. So often we fall into the trap of focusing on our mistakes or not fully dealing with an issue which prevents us from looking and moving forward.  Where is your focus? Looking forward is so much more fun for you and your team.  Besides, falling up a hill on skis is really hard!

Four hours flew by with Dennis. Each one in our group was a more proficient and confident skier after spending time with him.  And we had fun too!  Wouldn’t it be nice if your team said the same of you?  Your workplace may not reside at 12,000 feet on Copper Mountain, but I promise you, your leadership journey can reach those same heights.  And by the way, the view from your 12,000 feet is spectacular!

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