Taking the Initiative and My Favorite Metaphor

skiingI love metaphors. The spark of an image can light up whole new understanding for me almost instantly. It’s like a light bulb turning on (see!). So I collect them and over-use them as code for concepts when I teach, consult and work with my team.

“Leaning in”, as it were…

One of my favorites is a skiing image my instructor Dave painted for me more than 5 years ago. A very patient and effective teacher, Dave always tries to visualize things in multiple ways for different learning styles. This is particularly important as you try to help a bunch of 40 somethings figure out how to navigate a slalom course using skills that are not at all natural to them. There’s a lot of teaching people to do counter-intuitive things.

It turns out one of the hardest things to “get” as you learn to ski is how far forward you need to lean to maintain leverage on your ski tips. This matters because without that leverage turns are very challenging and you really leave the hill in control of where you go. It’s hard because you can’t feel your self in a neutral or backward stance because physics is sending your nervous system counter signals. For a novice it also seems bit ridiculous, frankly, to lean even further forward down a steep slope or starting gate. (note Phil’s advanced Sharpie art rendering).

skiing 2A strong forward lean allows you to maintain pressure from a dynamic, athletic stance. This gives you control and choices, taking control back from the hill. Even though it feels like “OMG” at first.

Since my hidden super power is to make almost any metaphor a management metaphor that I beat to death, I made this (here it comes…) a “lean in” example. One where literal leaning in helps you maintain control and set the agenda.

It is sometimes hard to describe how to take the initiative in ambiguous situations without authority. I’ve used my ski metaphor increasingly to make this point and people seem to get it. The leap is from “pressure on my tips” to pressing the agenda. Did I set up a meeting? Was I more prepared? Did I go find data no one else had? Did I line up support? These are all examples of a proactive stance. And they are often uncomfortable.

A passive stance works sometimes in surviving and avoiding bad outcomes, but it rarely drives change. In skiing it rarely works, at least in tough conditions.

So, if you want to do hard things or see change, you have to “put pressure on your tips”.

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