As both a ski instructor and an executive coach, I am always on the lookout for lessons in the domain of skiing that can be transferred to leadership and vice versa. The act of utilising a lesson from one domain and transferring it to another is sometimes called “lateral learning”. Leveraging lessons in this way can speed skill acquisition in the new domain and often strengthens the lesson in the original domain.
We are all leaders either formally (e.g. executive in a corporation) or informally (e.g. a parent). Below are six lessons that I’ve found to be true in skiing and in leadership, or life for that matter.
Our best performances happen when we’re focused and in the present moment. I recommend taking time on a ski lift or at the top of a run to plan and anticipate what lies ahead. Then reflecting on a run at the bottom or back on the lift. This allows us to “get out of our heads” while we are skiing, and just ski! When we lead, it is important to visualise the future, create objectives, make plans, prepare for obstacles, etc. It is also valuable to reflect on what has been going well and what can be improved. Then, the rest of our efforts can be connecting and conversing as leaders in the here and now.
You are what you practice
Another way of saying this is that we are always practicing. Often in ski lessons I encourage students to use the easy runs, connector trails, or traverses as an occasion to practice fundamentals. An example of this is having students execute “railroad track turns” on all runs that would otherwise be boring. This practice can then translate directly to edging skills on more difficult terrain. I like to think about a ski turn being the least common denominator of skiing and that I am working to improve each turn I make. Leaders are served by viewing each and every interaction as an opportunity to lead. How a single interaction goes is directly connected to the next. This way, we are what we practice.
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Investigate your fear
Acknowledge your fears, evaluate them, learn from them, feel them fully, and then choose wisely. When working with students who are afraid I often ask them what they are afraid of. An example answer from a lower level lessons is: “I am afraid that I will lose control and run into someone or something.” Now that I know what s/he is afraid of we can look at it rationally. I explain to the student how the terrain I am taking them to, and how I will manage the class, will minimise the probability of this happening. I also ask them to describe how the fear feels in their body. This awareness often reduces the fear to a more manageable emotion. After the student has explored the particular fear I will follow up and see how s/he is doing. Often the fear is reduced enough to proceed. If it is not, I will change my plans accordingly. A popular question to ask leaders is “what keeps you up at night?” This is a way of understanding the fears of a leader. Effective leaders acknowledge what they are worried about, get as accurate as they can about the likelihood of the fear coming true, and then plan accordingly.
Variety builds adaptability
Skiers who primarily ski on groomed terrain often have a rude awakening when they go off-piste. I like to mix up my skiing such that I have a variety and never get too used to groomers and “hero snow”. Spending time in powder, crud, bumps, etc.. and feeling uncomfortable is really important. Eventually, skiers feel comfortable not feeling comfortable. This is true for leaders as well. Avoiding difficulties as a leader only allows problems to build and make them worse. I coach leaders to take on problems as soon as possible and that it is okay to feel uncomfortable. Leaders wouldn’t be needed if we only lead when it’s easy.
Take on appropriate challenges
Studies in peak performance show that our best performances occur when we are fully engaged with an appropriate challenge. We are neither bored nor are we overly frightened. Skiers who wander into terrain that is considerably more difficult than they are skilled for will often ski defensively, freeze up, and end up having a miserable experience navigating back to safety. On the other hand, many injuries are reported when skiers are on an “easy run” where they are not paying attention. Effective leaders take on new challenges and stretch to assignments that are within their reach yet not over their heads. Leaders in boring jobs often look for new jobs and leaders who are in over their heads often struggle with stress.
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Be attentive and at ease
Another characteristic of peak performance is a way of being that is both ready and relaxed. Overly ready will result in too much tension and hurt performance, while overly relaxed will cause us to be sloppy. Striking a coexistence of both attentiveness and ease will give us a place to operate from that is focused, nimble, and flowing. We have all seen or experienced anxious leaders or leaders who are checked out. Neither extreme is effective. Be both attentive and at ease to be your best.
Now that we are in the off-season, you can take these lessons into your leadership or your day to day life. Following the principles of lateral learning, you will improve you skiing this summer too!
By Roger Henderson
Level 3 Ski Instructor – Professional Ski Instructors of America
Executive Coach – Guiding leaders to be present and naturally achieve surprising sustainable results
Henderson Personal Coaching – Boulder, Colorado – USA