In 2008 I was in Lima Peru with my brother Robert. We had met there to continue on to Cusco and eventually hike the famous ruins at Macchu Pichu. While in Lima, we made our way to the coastal suburb of Miraflores. We spent significant time seeing the sights and walking the famous cliff-side Larcomar shopping district that overlooks the historic La Rosa Náutica restaurant on the pier hundreds of feet below. Anyone familiar with the area knows that to the north is the beautiful Parque de Amor (Lover’s Park) and just beyond that lies one of the most spectacular views in all of Miraflores, the cliff-side park at Parapente. Standing there, in awe of the view, I had no idea that two years later I would find myself leaping from the two hundred foot high cliff on the southwestern edge of the park.
Like all cliff-side parks, this spot offers spectacular views of the ocean, the island in the distance, surfers that look like little bubbles on the water two hundred feet below, and the sky. Oh, the sky! The view of the sky here is amazing. There on the cliffs of Parapente you understand how small and how fragile you really are. In fact, the sky that you see from that place is unlike any sky you will ever see in your lifetime; It is riddled with paragliders. You see, the winds that rise from the two hundred foot cliffs can raise a paraglider to over one thousand feet without effort, making this one of the foremost paragliding spots on earth. It was amazing to watch the ease with which these daring men and women became a strange subclass of Aves. The wind would pick up these birds, and in what seemed a choreographed dance of wonder wove them, in and out, over and under one another in a ballet of spectacular color. It is a wonder to behold.
As leaders, we must remember that when we have the necessary skills to lead, from the outside our leadership can look choreographed and beautiful. Like the paraglider finding the balance in the wind, his own presence in the mix of others, and the sheer magnitude of the environment our leadership can be organized and beautiful. However, like the paraglider, if any one element fails, the ballet becomes a tragedy. Loss of wind, loss of any one other glider’s sense of presence and location, these things can change the makeup of the environment to be hostile or even deadly. Standing on that cliff, that beautiful ballet of color reminded me of how an astute leader has the ability to balance all the elements found in his or her organization and create a thing of beauty.
Fast-forward two years…
There I was, on that same cliff at Parapente, nervous yet excited as I waited for the wind to pick up so that I could paraglide for the first time. I had been here the day before, waiting. No wind, no ride. This was my last opportunity, I was leaving for home tomorrow. The wind, though the wait was excruciating, eventually cooperated.
I stood there after having paid my $35 and thought, “What on earth did I just do?” The apprehension grew a bit as they placed a helmet on my head and I told the pilot my weight. He gasped as he calculated the conversion to kilos in his head and I saw his countenance change… Not reassuring! I guess the wind was not strong enough for a 225lb., 6’-4” gringo. He hemmed, he hawed, he looked down at the $35 in his pocket and said, “Well, we can try!” … “Wait a minute… WHAT!” Clearly, he was not going to give back my $35 so that left only one option… Pray and GO!
So there I stood, fifty yards from the cliff with my pilot strapping me into a harness that is attached to the biggest kite one has ever seen. I remember looking at the cliff fifty yards in front of me, and thinking one solitary thought, “Like this helmet is going to help!” Then, he tapped me on the shoulder and yelled, “Run!” Hesitant, yet obedient, I ran toward the two hundred foot cliff hoping that the drag I was feeling was the fully inflated glider behind me. There was no way to know.
This was one of the few times in my life that a non-spiritual experience brought the diametrically opposed feelings of dread and tranquility and slammed them together in an instant. Running off that cliff, and the tightening of my harness signaled the beginning of forty-five minutes of elation, beauty, and indescribable wonderment. During that forty-five minute journey we ascended to over five hundred feet, smoothly traversed every manmade obstacle, mountain and valley within miles and above it all, the view was spectacular. There was not a hint of pre-Parapente fear. Once the final step was taken, the ride was bliss (the landing, however, was a bit less graceful).
Looking back at that experience I realize how many things could have gone wrong and I would not have known what to do. I was privileged to participate in a grand adventure that was only made possible by a highly skilled and trained pilot. As a leader, you must remember that at times your people will experience the fear of the unknown as they try to go with you on your journey. They must learn to trust your expertise and experience. As you sharpen your skill set and grow as a leader, you will instill trust in your abilities and provide excitement for the adventure. However, the trust of your people is paramount.
Had I not trusted my pilot that day I would have feared for the entire forty-five minutes of my flight. But because I trusted both his judgment and his skill set, I experienced a life changing, smooth flying adventure.
It is not appropriate, as leaders, to throw our people a helmet and strap them to our vision or action, without first earning their trust in our ability to lead. Should we attempt to do so, they will sit when we yell, “Run!”
Was there risk even though the pilot was skilled and trained? Absolutely. That is the way of leadership and that was the reason for the helmet. Not every decision is going to play out the way you anticipate that it will. Some—by luck—will gain altitude, but many of them will plummet. This fact is the reason why it is so important to constantly refine your leadership qualities. Either train and train hard or get off of the cliff!
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