I’ve spent the last 20 years or so with no significant periods of being ‘alone’. Sure I’ve driven in the car by myself (and for the record, I sing terribly, at the top of my lungs), but I’ve not been genuinely by myself without someone I know and trust to be able to call on. Travelling to America to speak at the IDA conference, was a trigger to have some well-overdue solo time. No family, no colleagues, no friends – just me.
For my first week in the States I booked a western national parks tour which was 5 days of ‘light’ grade exploring in national parks.
The first day of the trip was to Zion National Park. The walk we took was a 6km round trip up some of the steepest terrain I’ve ever walked. And for the first time that I can remember, my monkey brain went into overdrive and completely took over. About a third of the way up I was stuffed. It was stinking hot (37 degrees), there were steep gradients (35 degrees and that was with switchbacks!), and no breeze. I was trying to go steady, trying to breathe through my nose, trying to just put one foot after the other … but nothing was working. I was going ridiculously short distances only to stop to regain my breath and try to get my heart rate down. It was peaking at about 173 beats per minute. I told myself that heart attacks happen after 171 bpm (I have no idea if that is right, it’s probably 161!). I convinced myself I was likely to die if I kept going.
My monkey brain was full negative self-talk … I was not going to make it to the top, I was going too slow, the rest of the group was too far off by now and even if I did make it to the top, I’d be so slow they’d all be frustrated with me, I’d wear myself out and not be able to walk anywhere for the remaining 4 days of the tour. That was it – I was finally that person – that middle-aged-out-of-shape-not-capable-of-doing-what-I-wanted-to-anymore-person. I was 100% sure of it. I was even struggling with the idea of having to walk back down. I sat and observed others coming down from the top – noticing all of the ones who were older than me or appeared less fit than me. Normally, I can count on my well-ingrained competitive nature to push me on. But even that had deserted me. I just sat there and beat myself up for not being more able when others clearly were.
I started to think about how I would be if I had others with me to give me positive reinforcement – the important people in my life, my biggest cheerleaders. Surely if they were with me I could do it.
And that’s when I gave myself a very hard, open-palmed mental slap in the face.
I’d suspected it for some time now, and this proved it. I had become far too reliant on the positive reinforcement of those I am close to; far too reliant on them telling me I can do it to be able to actually do it. And that is so not me. It never has been. But somehow along the way, I’d let the voices of others become louder than my own. And I hadn’t been able to identify it before now, but I all of a sudden had blinding clarity that I was weakening myself by relying on others for strength or affirmation. And so I got cranky with myself. Finally! Something other than self-loathing and monkey brain chatter.
I was still a long way from the top. But I got up. I went to the next switch back. And around that corner was the most beautiful sight … shade! The walk from there was a beautiful track up one of the natural crevasses in the cliffs. It still wasn’t easy, and I swear the next set of switchbacks came across were a 45 degree incline; but I’d broken through the mental barrier of ‘I can’t’.
My life lesson on that day – stop waiting on others to tell me I can. I’ve always trusted that I could rely on my own grit and determination – I just forgot that for a while.
What does this have to do with leadership? Well, I believe that successful leaders need to have personal grit. It doesn’t matter what needs to be overcome, grit is important. And it comes from within. Grit doesn’t necessarily make you a great leader of others; but it does give you the ability to drive yourself. And that’s the thing about being in a leadership role – it requires a lot of self – self-motivation, self-inspiration, self-drive. Because ultimately your people are looking to you to help them when they have a mental blockage; and rarely do you get it back from someone else. And so your personal grit is on my list of important traits of being a leader.