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Leadership Lessons from My Snowboarding Instructor

“What are you doing?!” my 20-something, very talented snowboarding instructor asked as I fell for the umpteenth time, wobbling my way down the Bunny Hill. First time snowboarding. I don’t know what I was thinking. He clearly felt the same.

Everything hurt – my arms, my neck, my derrière. But it was my pride – my sense of confidence – that took the greatest hit. People warned me not to try it. “There’s a steep learning curve!” Got it. “You’ll spend most of your time falling down!” Got it. “It hurts to learn!” Definitely got that.

My love of watching snowboarders casually float down with effortless grace was something I’d always wanted to try. I just didn’t count on my fear kicking in as much as it did.

What made my snowboarding instructor so good was that he knew it. “You’ve got it,” he said in his casual L.A. accent. “You know how to turn. You know how to stop.” “You’re just scared.”

Dang. He was right. I was scared.

What I know about fear is I feel LIKE I’M GOING TO DIE. And for me, the speed and inability to make the snowboard stop quickly felt like I was going to die. Yikes. This was going to be a steep learning curve.

Fear works this way though, doesn’t it? It is our bodies’ and brains’ responses to an unknown. So we protect ourselves. We might freeze up. Fight against the instructor. Or flee altogether.

I did all three.

But my kind instructor reiterated: “Don’t fear the speed. Trust it.” Trust it? Trust going fast when I am scared? Made no sense.

What I believe he meant was to try to trust myself. Get through the fear NOT by freezing up, but by trusting my skills, even minimal ones. The way snowboarding works is that it puts you, quite literally, on your edges. But you have to gain speed to feel your edges to turn and stop. In other words, even though my thoughts had me constantly falling (which I did), I still must take the leap of relaxing into the unknown, believing I will manage the speed.

The pain, the fear, the edges – and the speed! All of this is the great stuff that my leadership clients face everyday. They live in the unknown. And learn how to trust themselves to make decisions even if they feel unsure. They use fear not as a stopping point, but as a place to check in with what they believe about themselves.

So I didn’t die. My brain was still making all kinds of arguments how this was the worst idea ever. But I learned something that day about fear and trusting myself. And how to lead into the unknown.

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