While enjoying a short break in the winter sunshine last week, I tried my hand at paragliding for the first time and it occurred to me that the experience was closely analogous to that of being an entrepreneur, and it served as a reminder of some important leadership lessons.

Starting my own business nearly ten years ago, and before that walking away from corporate life, seems in some ways a lifetime ago but also just like it was yesterday. One thing I remember so clearly was the incredible emotional journey of striking out on my own, totally committed to what I was doing, but at times not necessarily feeling in full control! Leadership of any organisation has many parallels too, with considerable highs and lows as we’re buffeted by prevailing winds, doing our best to stay on course.

The first step to paragliding is perhaps the scariest and most counterintuitive thing I’ve ever done. Just as that decision to leave the comfort and security of corporate life and starting out on my own left me both excited and terrified, so it was that I followed my instructor’s order to run full pelt off the side of a mountain. Believe me, it’s almost impossible to get your head around! As I ran as fast as I could downhill into space, all my instincts were telling me not to do it, but I knew I couldn’t stop.

Once we were airborne, I quickly had to get into my seat in front of the pilot (it was a tandem flight) and prepare for what was to come. I needed to get secure and comfortable, and fast. There was no time to contemplate what I’d just done as we were straight into the flight, and no option to go back! At this point my heart was racing but it was also a thrilling feeling and, although I quickly started to enjoy the incredible sensation of freedom.  The pilot kept telling me to “relax more”, and I know now I should have trusted him.  There are definitely times, even today in business, when I need to relax more with my team, when they are ‘piloting the ship’.

The next bit was brilliant fun, catching the thermals and soaring around like a bird. Luckily the pilot was doing all the hard work, but I still had to concentrate to take everything in as the world opened up beneath us. At one point he asked me if I wanted to do any acrobatics and I said yes, so we span around and around which was so exciting, but also somewhat disorientating.  A good leader should always know where to look to understand the direction of travel and understand any potential hazards ahead.  At this point in the flight I had no idea which direction we were travelling nor what was coming up!  In hindsight I would have really benefited from knowing where to focus during this turbulent time and I feel I could have contributed far more and enjoyed it more had I done so.

As we approached the end of the flight, I again had to embrace the counterintuitive and force myself to accept a seemingly ridiculous notion: the pilot’s instruction was to throw my weight forward (out of the seat!), towards the fast-approaching land, prepared to – literally – hit the ground running. If I hesitated or threw my weight back (as my rational brain was trying to persuade me), we would crash and risk injury, so again I just had to do what I was told.

Looking back on my paragliding experience – which I absolutely loved – it reminded me of some important leadership lessons:

  1. Just do it

I’m not encouraging recklessness or thoughtless decision-making, but ultimately as leaders we have to lead. Even when jumping off a mountain is terrifying, if you want others to follow you, you have to leap first. Make your decision and then DO IT.

  1. Accept that you can’t control everything

Leadership is not about having all the answers or controlling everything. It’s your job to set the direction and create the vision then let your team take flight.  And when the wind buffets you, don’t get knocked off course. Adjust your wings and ensure you know where to look to stay focused on your destination.

  1. Don’t let fear limit you

While I absolutely believe in listening to your inner wisdom and ‘going with your gut’, it’s also important to understand when not to let your fear of the unknown stop you. All progress comes from small steps forward, and sometimes being brave enough to jump off the mountain is the best way to unleash both our and others’ potential.

If you’ve never tried paragliding, I thoroughly recommend it. Or maybe there’s another activity which you’ve found equally inspiring? As always, I’d love to hear how your experiences have taught you important leadership lessons.

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