Coach’s Corner Blog

6 Things Leaders and Tightrope Walkers Should Have in Common

November 5, 2014 by Leave a Comment

Nik Wallenda walking across the Chicago skyline blindfolded.

Last Sunday night I saw something quite remarkable. Nik Wallenda walked across a tightrope for two city blocks across the Chicago River between two high-rises at a height of 600 feet.

He did it in cool temperatures on an early November night. A friend of mine and I watched in a crowd of about 65,000 and it was carried live on the Discovery Channel. It took him 6:51 minutes to accomplish that.

His next trick was to walk between two towers at 500 feet – blindfolded – which he did in 1:17. They were astonishing feats and being in the crowd watching was fun.

So much for “What I Did This Weekend”.

The reason I share this is because it literally made me think of what leaders have to face all the time. Nik Wallenda is from a very famous tightrope walking family of daredevils who have seen their share of tragedy in their storied history. I’m sure some leaders feel like they are walking on a tightrope in their adventures in leading, although I dare say it will never be as life and death as being 600 feet above a river.

One thing that I marveled at was the network of guy wires that held the main rope in place. These stretched for more than a block in either direction and then up 600 feet. To me, the main rope represented the leader and the guy wires, defined as  “a tensioned cable designed to add stability to a free standing structure”, were the subordinates to a leader and his or her vision or plan. The reality is that Nik could never have executed his amazing feat without the incredible efforts of so many to make that happen.

What does Nik’s team get for his feats? I have no idea what it is like to work for a daredevil or how they are rewarded, but leaders are not leaders if they have no followers, so I considered how to compare what a leader’s team needs to know to create a truly effective executive group.

Failure for a wire walker is pretty grim so there is no lack of pressure for Nik’s team to perform flawlessly as well. But what does Nik’s team expect from him in making such an amazing feat the success it was on Sunday night?

To get a better understanding of that last question, I turn to Larry Bossidy who had a 30 year career at General Electric and then became the CEO of Allied Signal. He wrote a wonderful book, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done and also wrote very interesting HBR article, What Your Leader Expects of You. Here’s what he said, followed by some observations of mine about:

What My Direct Reports Can Expect from Me

1. Provide clarity of direction.

If I’m the leader, it’s my job to communicate clearly where the business is going, why, and what the benefits will be if we accomplish what we set out to achieve.

There is an old Indian saying if you don’t know where you are going, any path will do.  This clarity and a commitment to reaffirming and adjusting the path along the way is critical.

2. Set goals and objectives.

An executive may assume he’s doing a good job, but he can’t know for sure that his boss would agree if he has no specific goals and objectives to strive for.

Alignment of focus and efforts is critical. Within the boundaries that are set for any objective, there is lots of room for creativity and accomplishment. Without it, you get chaos. With a tightrope walker, I’m sure the boundaries are very clear and more limited.

3. Give frequent, specific, and immediate feedback.

When I give feedback, I’m signaling to people that I’m interested in their growth and that I see a path for their future. Employees shouldn’t have to wait for an annual review to learn how they are doing, and if the feedback is going to help drive their growth, then it needs to be as specific as possible.

You need to have the metrics and the feedback loops to measure your effectiveness and progress. Leaders should seek feedback from their team as well. There must be an atmosphere of openness and trust to support such candid dialogue.

4. Be decisive and timely.

Decisiveness isn’t useful if it isn’t timely. People should expect me to make decisions as soon as I have the information I need, and not be careless or impetuous but to give clear, unambiguous answers.

Be sure you have agreement from the folks that matter so you can say, “At this time, with this information we have all we need to make this decision”. But be sure you know when to say “Not Yet” if you’re unsure. Business is not about eliminating risk, it’s about managing it.

5. Be accessible.

If I expect people to keep me informed about what’s going on, then I need to be available when they need me. It’s certainly in my interest.

The most effective leaders are always busy, but they don’t let their calendars control their work or personal lives. One of the most successful CEOs I have ever met will get back with me in 24 hours or sooner if he’s not traveling internationally.

6. Demonstrate honesty and candor.

People spend far too much time figuring out how to tell others something unpleasant – how to deliver the news in a diplomatic way. If I can say something sensitively and diplomatically, so much the better. But if I can’t, I owe it to my employee to say it anyway.

To do this you need to have trust. One key element of a trusting relationship is that others can count on you to provide candid, constructive feedback when asked for or when either a teachable moment presents itself or the situation demands it. It must be an expectation of all on the team.

Ask yourself:

  • What kind of tightrope team are we? Does everyone know what success looks like?
  • As a leader, how would my team rate me on all six of these expectations?
  • What is the one thing I can do to be a more impactful leader based on what I have just read?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments. Please share your experiences or ideas with us all in the comments section at the end of this post.

Photo Credit: AP/Discovery Communication

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