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Embarking on the Leadership Adventure

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Moving from individual contributor to leader of a group can challenge our sense of self, but also open us up to new ways of bringing value to our teams and our organizations. Tim Griffin of PSMJ refers to this evolution as “working on the company rather than in the company.” As I’ve expanded my leadership role throughout my career, I’ve tried to keep my eyes and ears open for advice and best practices from leaders I respect and admire. My mentor at EUA, Kristin Dufek, advises leaders to anticipate problems before they occur and deal with them proactively so that others on the team can focus on their work. Rich Tennessen, EUA’s President, advises empathy for team members and a willingness to collaborate on solutions. These ideals point away from an authoritarian style and toward a coaching model of leadership.

At the WHA Rural Health Conference this year, I had the opportunity to see Jim Davidson speak about what he calls “resilient leadership.” I settled into my seat, ready to absorb some leadership lessons from an expedition to the summit of Mount Everest. Jim did provide some thoughts about leadership, and he did describe standing on top of the world, but along the way he also told a harrowing story of his fall into an 80-foot deep crevasse and his successful effort to climb out on his own and survive. The core of Jim’s message was that resilient leadership requires situational awareness, the capacity to accept change and adapt quickly and the ability to project confidence.

Situational awareness is important for leaders, because it enables them to make informed decisions, which builds confidence from their team members. Many of us have encountered the leader who “doesn’t get it” or “doesn’t know what’s really going on.” Openness to input from our team and our surroundings, a willingness to do the research or “go to the Gemba,” in Lean terminology, gives us a solid foundation for decision-making. Not every decision can be perfect, but if we make the best decision we can with the information we have at the time, then we optimize our chances of success and can look back with no regrets. Team members see that we’re open to new ideas and information, and this builds trust.

In a competitive business environment (I’d be interested to hear about a market that is not competitive!), the capacity to accept change and adapt quickly is critical to success. Human nature makes us all resistant to change, to a greater or lesser degree based on our personality and our experiences. Leaders embrace the opportunities that change presents, rather than being afraid of them. And time is a non-renewable resource, so the more of it we can spend on working toward a solution, the better our solution is likely to be.

In his presentation, Jim showed a video of an Everest expedition leader in the moments after an avalanche had descended on all sides of her team’s camp. She walks to the middle of the group and immediately provides leadership by projecting confidence. She is calm, visible, and speaks clearly over the din. She steps forward and steps up, providing leadership at a critical moment for the team. She assesses the situation realistically but optimistically, telling everyone that they’re going to be okay and why.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Jim Davidson has leveraged his mountaineering experiences into a successful career as a guide, author and coach. I’ve never summited the Himalayan peaks that he has (although I have hiked to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48). However, like you I’ve faced many challenging circumstances throughout my career, and I believe a key to success is to embrace these challenges. Zak Kvasnica, one of our team members, commented during a team huddle: “The times when we’re uncomfortable are the times that we grow.” This is sometimes referred to as “post-traumatic growth,” or PTG. Jim’s experience in the crevasse was an extreme example of trauma, but even in our day-to-day work lives we experience small versions of this discomfort and uncertainty about the best path forward. By marshalling our resources, accepting the situation, adapting to it, and maintaining a level of confidence based on our training and skills, we can overcome and even thrive in the face of these challenges.


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