March 5, 2018

Fully-Prepared Leadership Takes Practice

by Ben Woodard

Life sometimes demands immediate use of your leadership skills, whether you’re ready or not.

Imagine yourself awaking in the dead of night to the desperate cries of your friends yelling your name. Before you can even sit up from your sleeping bag, you begin to realize your predicament – a flooding creek is swiftly carrying you downstream, tent and all. Your fingers search frantically for the zipper that will allow your escape, but torrents of water toss you into increasingly violent rapids, leaving you gasping for air. Still trapped within the confines of the tent, you feel yourself rushing suddenly downward – you’ve just been thrown over a significant waterfall. Barely clinging to consciousness, you feel a surge of relief when a wayward tree limb slashes the side of your tent, allowing you to escape into open water, struggle your way to shore, and collapse with injuries that include several broken ribs, multiple skull fractures, and a punctured lung. To make matters worse, it suddenly dawns on you that you are at the bottom of a remote river gorge, in the middle of a nighttime thunderstorm, and your friends are nowhere in sight. But at least you are alive.

 

Such was the scene in June of 2016 when three college friends experienced a harrowing ordeal in southern Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest. Five hours after the incident occurred, a helicopter rushed the victim to the nearest trauma center where the teen recovered remarkably well in the following days.

 

Tristan, one of the victim’s companions during this trip, was actually a former student in a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course. The month prior to witnessing a flash flood carry his friend away, I had led Tristan through this intensive 9-day experience that focused on developing practical medical skills in environments where definitive medical care is not readily available. WFR students gain proficiency in hands-on skills and sound decision making, primarily through one crucial method: practice. Continual immersion in realistic emergency response simulations allows students to practice their medical provider skills in a low-risk environment, ultimately preparing them to be as fully equipped as possible in a genuine emergency.

 

Can emphasis on practice, the cornerstone of wilderness medicine trainings, lead you to become a more effective, better prepared leader in your own life? Experience suggests the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

 

Practice is an often-overlooked means of developing resilient leaders who can competently respond to a variety of complex challenges. Pick up any book on leadership development and you’re likely to read story after story focused on flashy moments of high-profile, critical importance; these make-or-break situations typically hinge totally on the perfect response of the leader.

 

If you’re like me (and most leaders with whom WinShape Teams works), the majority of your day-to-day leadership choices may not feel as high-octane or important as the headline-grabbers we read; however, every choice we make is of critical importance in some way.

 

Reorienting our minds to perceive routine decisions as a training ground allows us to practice our leadership skills every day. Tristan was able to effectively respond to a grave situation, not because he possessed a superior intellectual understanding of wilderness medicine, but because he spent focused time practicing the hands-on skills of emergency response through lifelike simulations. We can learn from Tristan that how we practice dictates how we show up in situations of great urgency and stress.

 

We all possess opportunities to strengthen our leadership muscles while operating in the daily grind. Below are three specific areas in which you can start practicing to become a fully-prepared leader.

 

1. Seek feedback.

The main cause of many leadership issues is the leader’s lack of self-awareness. Actively seeking the candid feedback of those with whom you work most closely not only affords you the opportunity to learn more about how your team perceives your behavior; it has the added benefit of fostering a sense of safety and trust among your peers.

Tip: As a first step, seek feedback in one-on-one settings. As you grow in confidence with this skill, seeking feedback in group settings can provide a powerful impetus toward building a healthy feedback culture.

 

2. Listen to learn.

This is a tough one for most folks. Listening involves the intent to truly understand; instead, we often use a communication partner’s words as a springboard to interject our own opinions. Listening to learn is a skill that must be practiced with regularity. Listening to learn demonstrates a deep care for the person with whom you are communicating; it also helps you to gain empathy for their perspective.

Tip: In your next conversation, try to match every statement you make with a question. Asking a question with genuine interest creates space for the other person to speak, which provides you the opportunity to practice your listening skills.

 

3. Prioritize with intention.

We work with many leaders who feel burdened by what scholar Charles Hummel calls “the tyranny of the urgent.” As the volume of information and tasks build up to seemingly insurmountable levels, many experience an undue sense of stress and anxiety. Prioritizing our workload based on each task’s level of urgency, with consideration of its level of importance, will help us create healthy rhythms that ensure work gets done and our well-being remains intact.

Tip: Check out the easy-to-use Eisenhower Matrix online; take several minutes to review your tasks for the next few days, categorizing each task into the quadrant framework of the matrix. Let the results inform how you approach your to-do list over the coming days.

 

Don’t just stop with the suggestions listed above; think of other areas in your life where you can develop a better, more disciplined approach to practice, thereby becoming a healthy leader. Happy practicing!

 

Looking for more opportunities to practice your leadership skills in a safe, low-risk environment? Check out WinShape Teams’ 2018 Leader Summits in order to learn more about how program experiences with leaders from across the country can serve as the catalyst for reaching your leadership goals.

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