The HR Juggler

Little Lessons of Leadership

Posted on: April 29, 2012

It’s funny, isn’t it, how some of the most important and powerful lessons we have to learn, or be reminded of, more than once.

Early in my career, less than a year after I had started my first HR job, I was lucky enough to take part in a leadership ‘outward bounds’ course which took place in the far north of Scotland. It was a memorable experience for a number of reasons and at times quite extreme…from arriving at the remote location by canoe and each member of the team performing an eskimo roll in the freezing loch before entering our accommodation; to abseiling, orienteering, hiking and attempting to climb the 100 foot mast of a boat whilst sailing in less than calm waters. Whether these types of courses are the most effective way of developing leadership skills is a separate question – I shudder slightly to remember parts of it – but overall I enjoyed the experience immensely and certainly learned a lot.

One of the biggest lessons I learned was through my first (and last!) experience of rock-climbing. The learning was two-fold: firstly as an observer on the ground below, my role was to encourage and guide my colleague as she climbed the seemingly sheer rock-face, describing where she could place her hands and feet to progress to the top. Here, I tried my best, but I underestimated the level of help that my colleague (also a first-time climber) needed and the powerful impact that a knowledgeable and confident coach can have on performance. I didn’t communicate to her as frequently, succintly and clearly as required; I dithered and so did she…I lost confidence and so did she…and she didn’t make it to the top.  She held only herself responsible, but I knew that I could have made more of a difference to her performance; particularly when it came to be my turn to climb and I scaled the rock face successfully, thanks almost entirely to the expert, confident, encouraging guidance I was given from another colleague below.

I can’t describe the elation, disbelief and sheer joy I felt when I reached the top…I vividly remember hugging the HR Director and exclaiming that I had done it and him remarking with conviction that I could do anything I wanted, if I set my mind to it, believed in it and worked to make it happen. A powerful lesson learned…and one that I fully embraced and was embedded into my consciousness.

And yet, if I’m honest, I have had to learn that lesson, that I can do anything I want to, many times, not least because the inner monologue that plays in my mind often begs to differ and advances a different view, one of potential issues, of limitations, of uncertainty. One that forgets that with discipline, commitment and preparation, plus a little self-belief and imagination, pretty much anything is possible. I doubt I’m alone in that regard. Understanding when to ignore and override one’s own inner monologue is perhaps the most powerful lesson of all.

I was reminded of all of this whilst walking on Friday, training for the Moonwalk, which is now only 6 weeks away.* I have been following the training plan, feel quietly confident and am enjoying becoming fitter and healthier. And for some time now, I have been questioning not whether I can do it, but thinking and planning what my next challenge might be, once I have undertaken and completed it. That’s a good feeling and an exciting one, as I have again been reminded that I can achieve so much more than I sometimes believe. Not only that, but I have far more impact on the success of others than I often realise…and that is certainly something that I want to remember and act on, not only during the moonwalk, but also at work and at home. I want to be the person who successfully encourages the other individual to the top of the rock-face, not just be the person who manages to achieve it myself.

What about you? What leadership lessons have you learned, either once or many times?  Any rock-climbing stories?! I’d love to know :).

* If you would like to sponsor me for the Moonwalk, you can do so by clicking on this link – thank you!

13 Responses to "Little Lessons of Leadership"

Alison, my attention was grabbed by your post as I spent my weekend mountain biking and white water kayaking (thanks to the recent heavy rainfall). In particular your mention of an Eskimo roll got me thinking.

When kayaking on fast white water the leadership is very important. Poor decision can be have serious consequences. Having a positive mental attitude and communicating that to your peers gives them confidence. Knowing when you have reached your limits so that you don’t endanger yourself and others is a must.

So who leads? With a group of competent peers, the person in the best position to make a decision is the leader at any given moment. However everyone needs to be responsible for themselves and supporting their peers all the time.

I work for a small start-up and we operate in a similar way to the Kayak group I describe. When I worked for a large multinational this happened sometimes, at the team level, but often slow decision making and a need to control at higher levels meant that leadership at the level of the team was stymied.

Back to the Eskimo roll. I also had a sense of achievement this weekend, and it came as a result of failure to correctly navigate a waterfall but recovering using the roll. If I had navigated the waterfall successfully I would have though nothing of it, but dampening down the inner dialog (while upside down at the bottom) and executing the roll gave me a sense of achievement.

Here’s a clip of someone doing the same in the same location (no one had a camera out yesterday)

Wow – that is a serious amount of water – I am very impressed! Thanks for taking the time to comment and to share your thoughts and experiences – much appreciated.

as always a really thought provoking post. It made me think how important it is to reflect on how far we have come and how much we have grown in our confidence and self-esteem from those first few months/years at work. Your abseiling example made me think of how hard it can be sometimes for people to say ‘this isn’t working for me: can we try another way?”. I know I am far better at doing this now, than I was 15 years ago, starting out and trying (too hard!) to impress.
It also highlights the need in supporting leadership capability to identify the potential in someone early in their career and nurture and support it as your HRD did.
Rachel x

All really good points Rachel – thanks so much for commenting. I agree that it is sometimes only when we llok back that we realise how far we have come

Alison – I really enjoyed this blog post. I too have found outwards-bounds activities to be a really interesting way to learn more about myself and team dynamics. Your story reminded me specifically of a pot-holing/caving excursion I did with a volunteering group when I was a teenager… I was suprised by just how frightening I found being trapped in the caves, in the dark, with no way out, and am ashamed to admit that at one stage I completely panicked and tried to escape! I vividly remember being frog marched back by two other members of my group and realising that the only way I was going to get out was by carrying on through the caves. Having to swallow my fear and trust in the team leader and the rest of my group was a really powerful lesson and of course the feeling of achievement afterwards when I realised I had got through something I had desperately wanted to give up on. Would I volunteer to go caving again? Not in a hurry 🙂 …But have I learnt how important it is to sometimes feel the fear and do it anyway? Hell yes!!

Caving – yikes! That would really scare me too. Kudos to you for managing to keep at it and find your way out…even if there was no other choice 😉

That is super true. Our most important lessons we have to learn more than once. I think it’s because we take away new things each time and grow in a deeper way. And this? “Understanding when to ignore and override one’s own inner monologue is perhaps the most powerful lesson of all.” If only there was an on/off switch for this!

I know – I’d like one too! Thanks so much for commenting

Nice post Alison – and re: lessons – you reminded me of something I wrote a while back:

‘Good leaders have a habit of making you feel like you are the most important thing in their lives at that moment.

The next time you meet folk and you think they might want to come to respect and appreciate you, please stop playing with your crackberry. You are capable of focusing your attention, right?

Being present creates presence. How will you be remembered for yours?’

Good luck for the walk 🙂

Thank you! I always love your comments Doug and it is a pleasure to receive them…even if this one did have to be added manually 🙂

As ever, thought provoking. Among the things that whizzed around my head while reading this was how non hierarchical leadership often is. We tend to associate leadership with looking up to people, but that is more of a by product. Leaders tend to get promoted but that doesn’t stop all of us from having the opportunity to do it all the time in less obvious directions. For example, one of the things you refer to here is how important it is to lead ourselves. Sometimes we have to lead the leaders. Other times leadership is about allowing ourselves to be led.

There is a typically long version of this I can deluge you with if you like 🙂


I am so very much into the idea of personal leadership, since reading up on it when I taught leadership at a uni. And I think that by concentrating on it as an individual, it actual knocks on into really helping us have more ability to lead others.
(Congrats on the brief reply tfmoh! :-))

[…] a blog post by referencing Alison Chisnell’s HR Juggler blog, and this is no exception.  Alison recently wrote about an outdoor development course she once did in northern Scotland, and about the leadership lessons she took from that experience. That reminded me of […]

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