The Climbing-Leadership metaphor

By Monday, September 15, 2014 0 No tags Permalink 0

Inspire has a young and vibrant junior management team that is clearly the future of our organisation. They are the ones that we need to trust to grow our employees and volunteers into capable and effective members of a unified team. I spend a lot of my time working on leadership development with them, with the aim to give them a better understanding of how mind-flow works. It is probably the best investment I can put into the long term sustainability of Inspire. Whilst we have spent 12 sessions developing leadership concepts through theoretical, practical and role-playing workshops, so it was time from some experiential learning. Thanks to Andrew Warrington and his team who donated their time to help us, we set up the team for an adrenaline rushed morning, complimented with an afternoon ‘reflective’ lunch.

We took the team to an unknown location with no clue as to what they were to be doing. I briefed them that the aim of the day was to reflect on trust, leadership, empowerment and mindfulness. I left it at that and took them to the venue – a 4 storey cliff face rigged for climbing, and a slack line set up to work on balance and mindfulness techniques.

The climbing provided a lot of experiential learning, as did the slack line activity. Both were excellent metaphors for leadership development.

In brief, these are the reflections and learning points of our morning.

TRUST – When belaying (assisting the climber), the climber is entirely in your hands and you have to be 100% aware of their movements. If they slip you need to break their fall by locking their rope with your equipment. They need to be able to trust you to be able to move ever higher up the cliff face. They cannot climb in fear. They need to focus on the task, knowing that you are protecting them. Like in management, your colleagues and subordinates need to know that they can trust you to protect them, lift them up when necessary and break their fall if they need support.

EMPOWERMENT – since you and the climber are on the same rope, any movement by either causes action on the other. If the climber slips, they pull on you. If you let go, they fall. However if you hold too tight the climber cannot move upwards or abseil back down to the ground. Unless you give them slack you simply physically freeze their position. The same goes with empowering employees. If you have too tight a grip on their movements, they will not move anywhere. They will not progress or reach new heights. If you let go too much, they miss your presence and are frozen psychologically, by fear. The fine balance required in empowering effectively is to ensure that you have enough of a presence for them to feel reassured, and enough slack to be able to progress, be creative and try stuff.

PERSONAL MINDFULNESS – Stepping on a slack line for the first time is an interesting experience. Every one of the team got the same reaction to pushing on the slack line; a reflective bounce that caused the line to wobble and vibrate until they fell off. The line is an inert object that simply reflects the forces put on it, amplified through its length. To stand on a line, the only way is to relax and switch off the forcefulness in your body. You need to become ‘a spring’ and absorb the vibrations until the slack line slows and stills. Within a few minutes everyone who learnt how to calm down, breath deep and think about reducing their forcefulness, managed to still the line. As soon as they lost balance, instinct kicked in and the wobble started again, causing them to fall off. In managing situations we face the same effect. The harder we fight an issue, bang our heads against the problem and use force to solve problems, the more it bounces back at us and knocks us over. We need to be able to maintain calmness, get into ‘our own heads’ and think clearly without ‘fight or flight’ responses. This is the only way we can make clear decisions without emotional or illogical confusion.

Experiential learning is an excellent way to get people together, share ideas and try new things. The mere fact of being together creates understanding between the team and helps them learn from each others. However the leader of the group needs to ensure that the reflections are surfaced and discussed. Otherwise it just becomes another fun day away from work.

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