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Going First

Robert Galvin, board chair and CEO of Motorola for nearly thirty years, once gave the following definition of leadership: "Leadership is going first in a new direction -- and being followed."

My former coworker Jim Stram and I once attended a leadership summit sponsored by our company for managers from several cities. One exercise involved an outside ropes course. Secured in our climbing gear and safely tethered by belays, our challenge was to ascend thirty feet above the ground and demonstrate our physical agility by crossing various rope bridges strung between utility poles. To accommodate the large number of participants, there were two identical courses, built side by side. Jim and I headed off for different courses.

When my group's instructor called for a volunteer to go first, I looked over at the adjacent course and saw Jim already climbing. He is a strapping former athlete, so seeing Jim leading his group up the ladder was not hard to predict. But, whether I was inspired by Jim's bravery, or worried that he would upstage me, I found myself ignoring my fear of heights and raising my hand.

Soon, I was nervously navigating along the course, swinging between Burma loops, clawing my way across a cargo net, and traversing a balance beam. Then, on an exercise called the hour glass, I found myself hanging upside down, clinging to a rope, and trying desperately to forestall what I imagined would prove an embarrassing rescue. But with encouragement from my teammates and suggestions from the instructor, I managed to right myself and finish the course. Exhausted, exhilarated, and dripping with sweat, I returned to the ground and joined Jim sitting under a nearby tree.

"Wasn't that awesome?" I asked.

"I didn't do it," he responded.

"What? But, I saw you going up the ladder."

"Yeah," he said, "I got halfway up the ladder, but my fear of heights kept me from going any higher. So I came back down."

Later that day, course facilitators persuaded participants to acknowledge any positive influences they received from one another during the exercise. My group thanked me for showing the courage to go first and lead our team onto the course. Many said they gained inspiration by my action. But Jim provided the initial inspiration by disregarding his personal aversion to heights to be the first to try. Without realizing it, Jim helped me overcome my fear and, as a result, inspired others as well.

As a leader, you must summon the courage to chart the course, venture into the unknown, challenge defeat, and risk disappointment. Your initiative will encourage others. Whether you risk personal safety or personal embarrassment for the sake of your values, by taking that risk you inspire others to follow.


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