When I learned to rock climb 20 years ago, a new world opened up for me that was not previously available. Since those early beginnings, my climbing adventures have led me and my friends up countless rocky precipices and were filled with joy, tears, meaning, challenge, and learning. They are truly some of my favorite experiences and have helped shape who I am as a leader and a coach. But my learning did not come easy, which is generally the case for anything that is truly worthwhile, including leadership.
Whether you are starting your first leadership journey, or you are far down the path, leadership serves up an endless supply of new opportunities and challenges that invite you to continuously learn, grow, and get better. Sometimes these opportunities are exhilarating, and sometimes they can be painful, worrisome, and even frightening. According to one of my teachers, Bob Dunham, “Life does not always give us gifts in gift-wrapped packages.” That’s certainly been true for me and for the many managers I have had the privilege to coach.
I still vividly remember one of my early adventures as a climber – my first rappel in Joshua Tree National Park. My buddy and climbing guide, Chad Johnson, led me through a labyrinth of trails, river beds, boulders, and rock formations to arrive at a granite perch, 120 feet above the desert floor. Being afraid of heights, my whole body trembled as I methodically threaded my harness, clipped into the system, locked my carabiner, and weighted the rope. My voice and my body never stopped shaking, and the sweat poured as I inched my way down the granite wall. Chad coached me, both guiding my movements and reassuring my confidence that each point of my multipoint anchor was capable of holding thousands of pounds. He even went so far as to claim that he’d let his grandmother rappel on it! Intellectually, I knew that my quivering mass only weighed a tiny fraction of the system’s capacity, but my head knowledge could not command my nervous system to calm down or overcome my fear.
So what does this have to do with learning leadership? Well, simply put, we can’t just learn leadership in our heads. We also lead with our bodies and our emotions. Having that difficult conversation or passionately standing up for what you believe with a body that is not conditioned to drive your message or with an emotional system that lacks the repertoire to capture and engage your audience is a non-starter. No amount of edits to your well-crafted message will help you. An African proverb I’ve heard from another leadership guru, Richard Leader, says, “Knowledge is just a rumor until it lives in the muscle.”
For my rappelling experience, no amount of book reading or seminars could have properly prepared me. Like Nike’s brilliant meme: I ‘just had to do it.’ And doing it once was not sufficient. I had to do it over and over and over again. In fact, I’ve now faced that specific fear many thousands of times, and I have guided many hundreds of other climbers through that journey as well. You see, our bodies do not learn through distinctions. They learn through recurrence.
And our emotional system does not learn through distinctions either. It learns through immersion. Surround yourself with a bunch of fearful, worried people, and you will learn how to feel afraid and worried. Surround yourself with a bunch of confident, optimistic people, and you will learn to feel confident and optimistic.
Today I still get a little fluttery when I step near a cliff. But now it is like visiting an old friend/ respected adversary who has taught me many lessons and ultimately made me better in mind, body, and spirit. The more I learn, the more I realize that I am surrounded by more friends and gifts that I could possibly know. My hope is that your leadership journey teaches this to you.