A Cliff's Edge: How to Lead, Fearlessly
WE Communications Blog: CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin
An avid waverunner and waterskier, I decided to try snowmobiling for the first time when I was in Wyoming a few weeks ago. After all, I reasoned, it couldn’t be that different from three-foot seas off the coast of Crete—just frozen. The experience was called “Wildlife Snow Safari,” which is misleading because no wildlife in their right mind hangs around big, loud machines. But the trip was a holiday gift, and almost all of Wyoming is wild—so it seemed like a good way to get into the back country.
But even the road up to the parking lot hugged the edge of a 1,000-foot drop-off, so before I laid eyes on a single snowmobile I was already asking myself a few key questions: “When will we get to a plateau?” “Why didn’t our guide put weight in the back of this pickup?”
Riding the edge of the cliff
Plunging deeper into the Bridger-Teton National Forest, we finally arrived at a small parking lot and hopped on our machines. Now, in fairness our guide had asked if I wanted to ride with him or my husband, and I had emphatically declined. But as we rounded bend after bend, I started to rethink this position. Although I wasn’t that cold, I did notice that my thumb kept cramping up, and what was really distracting me was the continued cliff-hugging. I couldn’t stop thinking about the last thing the guide had said to me before we zoomed off:
“If you’re terrified, hit the kill switch.”
It was the next bend where I came pretty close to being terrified. There was a huge cauldron of muddy, running water, and my guide had sped through it. My completely numb thumb found the switch and hovered above it as the enormous machine groaned sideways through foot-deep slush toward the edge of the cliff. I wondered if our guide had lost his mind. I wondered what he saw in my husband and me that made him think this was the right route for us. For some random reason I wondered who would teach my new puppy to sit, stay and balance treats on his nose after my snowmobile and I had slid into the ravine.
I really, really wanted to hit the kill switch—and believe me, that’s an understatement—but I didn’t. Instead, I stood up, revved the engine, and peered over the side of the cliff. This made the drop look even more plunging. I sat down. I took a deep breath. I looked at the ridiculous cliff, and I looked at the switch, and then I stood up again.
And guess what? When I stood up, the snowmobile steadied beneath my feet. It stopped planing toward the edge of the cliff and straightened out and gripped the mud beneath the runoff. (I did wonder why the benefits of standing weren’t included in the guidance.) For the next four hours we whisked along the path together through forests, meadows and more cliffs. Even without glimpses of wolves and moose, it was totally beautiful, and totally exhilarating.
Facing down fears in business and life
This wasn’t the first time I’d stood up to face down my fear, of course. I’ve done it in my personal life: I could mention the freak snowstorm while climbing in Canada, or the time my house burned down. I’ve done it over and over again in my professional life, too. I often think about the time we lost a huge account in Germany; we could have laid people off, but we didn’t. What about during the two-year stretch when our revenue declined and we could have stopped investing? Or all the times we could have sold out? But we didn’t.
At each of these times—and there have been plenty of others, too—my (numb) thumb has hovered over a kill switch of sorts, but I swallowed my fear and ignored it. Instead, I stood up and stayed the course. And each time I did, I found something as beautiful and exhilarating as the edge of that Wyoming cliff.
I’ve been thinking about my (and my colleagues’) outdoor adventures a lot this week, as I’ve watched one Olympian after another soar across my TV screen. The contrast between the athletes’ sweet faces and the absolute fearlessness that’s required to do what they do every day—well, for one thing, this is what happens when our kids look up and not down at their screens. More important, it’s what happens when we learn to swallow our anxiety and look away from our inner kill switch. From now on, I’ll be a little slower to say what’s possible and what isn’t. What’s more, I’ll encourage all of us to sit with our fears for a little longer before we allow them to declare victory. After all, it’s only when we stand up and keep steady on the path that we find out where it may lead.
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