Learning to Fly: Leadership Lessons
Ever flown a sport kite? You know: the ones that do loop-di-loops.
Skilled flyers dazzle the audience, inspire “oohs” and “ahs”, and (for me, at least) engender a sense of wonder and amazement. On a recent holiday, I learned to fly a sport kite. I didn't know this was a bucket list item for me; apparently, it was.
Three things I learned from flying a sport kite:
1) You don’t have to go it alone.
The expert flyer stood behind me, literally guiding my hands and movements. They held the pressure of the wind (capable of lifting a 250lb person off the ground!), allowing me to get a feel for the wind’s power and the kite’s movement. Then, they let go. With their guidance, I soon learned how to navigate the wind – and execute the twists and turns that make sport kites fun to watch.
Flying a sport kite is more complex and challenging than guiding a regular kite. Each kite requires a different skillset to fly successfully. This situation is familiar to the executives I advise – and indeed, to most leaders. (As colleague and leadership guru, Marshall Goldsmith, says: “What got you here, won’t get you there.”) Effective leaders help their staff to access untapped skills and develop new ones. They guide by example and allow individuals to test and learn. You don’t have to go it alone.
2) If you can’t see it, you can’t see it.
By design, a kite is connected directly to the flyer by string. With a sport kite, this link also creates a line of sight between what the flyer wants to do and what they can do. Of course, seeing the obstacles (trees, buildings, etc.) is helpful. I also needed to see (and count) the number of clockwise loops I executed to unwind the loops – a necessary step before changing direction or avoiding hazards.
Making strategy work requires visibility. CEOs need a clear view of what’s going on in the business, progress toward objectives, and how well their products and services add value to customers. Individuals want to understand how their work contributes to business results. Leaders create the line of sight that’s needed to connect the strategy to what’s happening on the ground. If you can’t see it, you can’t see it.
3) Sometimes, the right path is to park.
Flying a sport kite is at once invigorating and tiring. It requires constant vigilance and specific attention to small movements that spark outsized impact. I crashed the kite multiple times as I got the hang of both flying and landing the kite. And the wind kept changing, with odd gusts from different directions. In response, the expert flyer told me to stop moving and allow the kite to fly upward on its own. The kite takes a path of least resistance. The flyer regains control. In the moment when the kite was parked overhead, I found space to breathe and regroup.
Much has been written about the impact of burnout and exhaustion on the labor force and economy. There’s a compelling human case to take genuine time off and refresh mind and body. It’s also good business. Your strategy benefits from reflection and fresh perspective. Smart CEOs deliberately create space for both. Sometimes, the right path is to park.
Learning to fly was thrilling and fun. My flying skill may or may not have dazzled the audience. Still, it was an unexpected pleasure on a rainy, windy day – and another leadership lesson.