It’s not the mountains that trip leaders up: it’s the pebbles on the path
Issue 119 — January 26, 2020
Last week I wrote about tripping over a pebble while hiking and breaking my wrist. Since then, I’ve been thinking about how it’s never the mountains that trip you up. It’s the pebbles on the path.
Things you can’t see coming even though they are right in front of you. Impediments that don’t catch your eye because they’re so small that you are unaware of them, or you’re vaguely aware and pay no attention.
In leadership terms, your blind spots. Tin ears. Fatal flaws. The moments when privilege or power trips or too much hard driving focus on goals over relationships (Elon Musk comes to mind) can cause even the best of leaders to fail to see pitfalls that shock the heck out of them.
Sometimes you can pick yourself up and dust yourself off and keep going. Other times require pivots in one’s perspective, a different direction in life or career. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is crashing in and even the best orthopedic surgeons can’t patch up what’s broken.
Many books and articles laud people who have failed before they succeeded. That’s not what I’m talking about.
Those examples abound. Like J. K. Rowling, author of the wildly successful Harry Potter books started out as a single mom on public assistance. Ariana Huffington’s second book was rejected 36 times before she went on to found a media empire. (Personally, I needed to be reminded of this today as I am seeking to get my next book published!) Even President Abraham Lincoln lost his first elections and experienced setbacks in business.
We love these heroic stories. The moral is always that redemption is possible and success will come if we only stay true to our dreams and keep trying.
Indeed, there is a gift in every failure, the gift of learning if we are open to it. But I’m talking about something different.
The bigger they are the harder they fall.
My daddy took me to the Golden Globes boxing matches when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. There was a match between two boxers who were noticeably disparate in size. The odds were all in favor of the larger man, who came out prancing in white, making him look even heftier.
The shorter man knocked him out in the first round. My daddy turned to me and said, “The bigger they are the harder they fall.”
Of course, I had no idea that these words of wisdom weren’t original with my father, who loved giving me such aphorisms. Boxing champ Bob Fitzsimmons made it popular in the mid-1800s, based on the biblical story in which the giant Goliath was defeated by the boy David wielding only a slingshot.
The more successful one is, the further one has to fall and the more easily one is blinded by assumptions of his or her own invincibility or power. The greater the success, the greater the potential for failure.
I was not paying attention.
I probably felt somewhat invincible, walking along a gentle mountain trail chatting with a friend and enjoying the beautiful day. And when I apply the principle of the pebbles in the path to leadership lessons I have learned, I have to admit that inattention to potential stumbles has tripped me up more than I’d like to acknowledge.
I am very goal focused, and one of my greatest strengths is that I believe all things are possible. Usually I do accomplish what I set out to do to. I’m always telling my team and people in my leadership development programs that the world turns on human connections, but I have become aware through hard lessons that sometimes I don’t notice when I have not given adequate attention to a relationship with someone who can derail me. Failing to nurture a relationship with one member of a nonprofit board to which I report (NOT my current board, let me be clear!) can make my life a living hell. That’s a story for another day but yes, it has happened.
Solutions: how to guard against being tripped up by the pebbles in your path.
Aside from wearing really good hiking shoes, which I was chided for not doing by the hospital emergency room nurse, here are some tips I’ve learned the hard way for avoiding becoming tripped up by those pesky pebbles at work:
- Have someone on your team (or among your close circle of trusted friends) whose job description includes telling you the truth before you make the mistake or hear from others that you have done so. This is different from someone who simply “has your back.” I’m talking about someone who will look you straight in the eye and give you unvarnished feedback. You don’t have to take the advice but you must listen to it.
- If you don’t have someone on your team who can do that, consider getting a coach strong enough to speak truth to your power to hire or fire her.
- Own your mistakes transparently and take responsibility for them. If you’re in a position to make amends, do so immediately before anyone suggests that you do. This is not only good practice for yourself but it sets a role model for others. Above all do not be like former BP CEO Tony Haywood, who following the Deepwater oil spill disaster in 2010, not only distanced himself from responsibility but whined about “wanting to get his life back.”
- Lastly, another adage from my father, quoting Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, defeat is not fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts.”
I hope these tips are useful to you. Let me know. And if you want to get lots more leadership skills, inspiration from great speakers, and be the first to know what my 9 new leadership power tools will be, join me and hundreds of extraordinary women you want to meet at The Power Up Conference: Igniting the Intentional Leader Within in Scottsdale Arizona February 28 and 29th.
Hurry and register, because the early bird rate of just $99 for the two days expires on January 31.
GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet @GloriaFeldt.