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Leaders Pushing Limits

I have been reading with great interest, of late, the phenomenon of leaders taking physical risks and challenges to “keep the edge”. It is an interesting concept.

I have been reading with great interest, of late, the phenomenon of leaders taking physical risks and challenges to “keep the edge”. It is an interesting concept.

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In a recent USA Today article by Del Jones, he writes about CEOs and other high achievers testing what he calls their “freak-out point”. As Jones describes, the freak-out point is the fear threshold you must push yourself past. CEOs say crossing it provides lessons useful in business and in life. There’s great value in knowing what frightens you can be survived, as well as learning how to concentrate when concentration is all but impossible.

I am a pretty adventurous gal and our team at Training By Design has done some pretty edgy stuff, including skydiving and trapezing. We’ve done it in the spirit of teambuilding, and as I reflect, I suppose we like to test our limits. However, some of the stuff these leaders are doing seems radical: climbing Mount Everest, flying planes, bungee jumping, helicopter skiing, motorcycle racing and glacier climbing.

So what’s this about?

Many leaders say that pushing the limits outside the office gives them the experience of being in the moment, especially in times of crisis and keeps them focused, ready to take action. They say it helps them become comfortable with pressure and embrace risk. These are certainly important skills for leaders to have, but what if you are not inclined to risk life and limb to gain this experience? Are there other ways to keep sharp without surfing the biggest wave in Maui? I say, “Yes.”

How do I keep the edge without jumping off the edge?

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Continue moving…inaction leads to stagnation.

Often crises and difficult decisions lead to paralysis. Movement is the key to both preventing and moving out of paralysis. Not to say that strategy and planning are not valuable, but only after you’ve started moving in some direction. To think too long, without movement, adds to people’s confusion and can create lethargy.

Read…anything.

They say adults who read, do crossword puzzles and keep their mind sharp greatly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. I believe that leaders can have “business Alzheimer’s”. If you are not constantly stimulating your mind and learning new thought processes and concepts, you will lose your edge. Not everything out there is good reading, but much is. Ask someone who knows you and someone you trust the best thing they’ve read lately. One new idea you bring to your team can create a shift, and even transform your organization.

Talk to people…constantly.

Basic, but true. Leaders who are visible, talking to their employees and constantly searching for knowledge of what is going on in their organizations, stay fresh, head off crisis and keep ahead of the game. Aim for talking, I mean really talking, to 2-3 employees and customers a day.

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Ask for feedback and be open to what you hear.

Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNealy, who excels in hockey and golf, and is one of the best athletes ever to rise to CEO, was replaced in 2006 by Jonathan Schwartz. While one look at Schwartz’s ponytail tells you he won’t be taking any body checks on the ice, he became one of the first CEOs with enough guts to write a blog that invites relentless online comments from critics known as “flamers”. That may not rise to the level of freak-out point, but leaders dating back to Napoleon have been insecure about accepting criticism, and there remains few CEOs of major companies who blog. You have a responsibility, as a leader, to constantly ask for and accept feedback. How do you rate on this?

Try something that seems counterintuitive.

Be open to outcomes. At some point, as we grow in our business, we become “right” all the time. Once that happens, we deny ourselves the possibility that someone else has a better idea than we do. Trying things that may be counterintuitive for you shakes things up, gets people out of their comfort zone and often creates breakthrough ideas that you have not imagined possible.

Don’t let others in your organization do all the dirty work.

Leaders that have others deliver the tough messages, make the difficult decisions and hide when the chips are down, fail. This might push your personal freak-out point; however, what you gain in respect, support and understanding is your reward.

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Go work “on the line or in the trenches”.

Whatever your “line or trenches” are in your organization, being out of touch with the front line associates is certain doom. How can you make the right decisions without being in their shoes? Relying on others to report what is going on only goes so far. YOU need to know what is going on, first hand. Making time for this always gives you new insight, new information and new ways of doing things.

Do a 360 on yourself.

This will make you sweat. Have someone else get anonymous, 360 feedback on you. Pick 10 key individuals in your organization that you know will tell you the truth. Next, create specific and thoughtful questions to ask each one and have the data compiled. Once you get the feedback, thank your participants, no matter how tough the feedback. Make an action plan and publish what you are going to do differently. It’s not just about getting the feedback, but also actually doing something with the feedback that will make a difference.

Try This

Make a list of all the things that inspire you about other leaders. Compare them to your skill sets. What are you missing that they have? This is a great place to start understanding what you need to do to go to the next level. Then start learning those skills and practicing them. Start now, even if it’s scary. You don’t have to jump out of a plane to get your heart pumping; sometimes it is as simple as looking in the mirror and telling yourself the truth about something you should be doing and then taking the steps to do it.

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One last thought

I think finding and pushing your freak-out point occasionally is a good thing. If you’re the adventurous type, then go for the gusto and climb, jump, surf. If you are not, don’t let that stop you. There are ways to keep your edge, but lying down is not one of them.

Grace Andrews • Executive Coach/Corporate Healer • President, Training By Design • Boston, MA • gandrews@training-by-design.com • www.training-by-design.com