How to Make Leadership Development Fun: Ski!

leadership development through skiing
Ski touring and leadership development

How you can improve your leadership (and have a lot of fun!)

Many assume that having served in the army, formal military leadership training has helped me the most as a leader. While this training has been invaluable, plenty of other experiences have been crucial to my development. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the things that have been a huge part of my personal development has been skiing. Here is why.

Adventure helps us grow

I have always loved adventure. Getting outdoors, into the wild, and doing crazy things has always given me joy, but it has also provided another vital function; it has been the environment where I have learned the most about myself and been challenged to grow, both in character and as a leader.

In all of this skiing has a very special place, both in my heart and in my personal development. Here is the reason why.

A near disaster

I did not start to learn to ski until I was 18 years old, and it took a negative experience to kick-start this process. I can still vividly remember the exact moment I vowed that I would learn. At the time I was about halfway up the side of Mont Blanc. 

I was on a mountaineering expedition, but we were trying to climb the peak early in the season and there was still a lot of snow. Too much. We were trying to wade through snow that was often up to the knees or even thigh depth. As a result, our progress was a lot slower than it should have been, putting us in danger, both from avalanche risk and fatigue. We were running out of water and the altitude was also taking its toll. As our physical and mental capacities drained away, our decision-making capabilities were also eroded. Therefore, we were at an ever-increasing risk of an accident.

No one else on the mountain was stupid enough to be on foot. Every other person was on skis. They were using ski touring equipment that allowed them to walk up on skis and then ski back down. The skis meant that they were not sinking into the soft snow in the way we were. It was the first time I had ever seen this done and it struck me that this was a faster, safer (and much more enjoyable) approach compared to the one we had chosen. 

Extreme goal setting

It was mid-afternoon and we had been climbing for about twelve hours by then. I was stuck on a steep slope, waiting for other team members to ascend a rope. I had dug a small bucket seat in the snow, and I watched another group cruise past on skis, making their way back down the mountain. They had reached to top a long time ago.

I was on a slope that was a significant avalanche risk but – somewhat scarily – by then I was too tired to really care. All I remember was that it was at that moment when I promised myself, I would learn to ski, and then I would come back and do things differently.

Fortunately, we finally made it to the top, and then safely back down Mont Blanc. The experience had nearly put me off mountaineering for good. But I remembered my promise and my goal. I would learn to ski. Then I would come back.

Achieving the goal

Over the next few years, I carried on climbing but I also started to learn to ski. At that time, I was studying in Edinburgh so, when there was snow on the Scottish mountains I would head up for the day (even at the cost of a few lectures). 

For those who have not had the dubious pleasure of skiing in the Cairngorms then I can say that it is not a place I generally recommend for novice skiers. The weather is changeable, the snow quality unpredictable, the slopes are short, and the lifts are cold. On the upside, if you can ski in a gale, over a mixture of frozen heather and rock, all while battling the onset of hypothermia, then you can pretty much ski anywhere! It certainly provided good training for later exploits in the arctic regions.

As well as battling the conditions in Scotland, I booked myself onto some (relatively) cheap skiing holidays in the Alps where I could get some proper instruction. I also invested in some ski mountaineering equipment so I could practice walking up, as well as cruising down, the slopes on skis. This also required special instruction but fortunately, I knew a mountain guide who helped me with the basics.

Realising the dream

I progressed quickly in my skiing ability, but it was ten years before I fully realised my goal. By then I was an officer in the British Army and I organised an expedition to ski the Haute Route, across the Alps from Chamonix in France to Zermatt in Switzerland, and therefore got to revisit the slopes around Mont Blanc, this time on skis. 

Now, with this goal accomplished, I coupled my new skill (and passion) with another dream. I had always wanted to do a real ‘first’. To go somewhere that no one else had been or do something no one else had done before. And so, over the next few years, I built on my experience and improved my skills, ski mountaineering in Norway, Russia, and Svalbard (and yes, Scotland) to the point where I was able to go to Greenland and make first recorded ascents and descents of some mountains on skis.

The journey of self-discovery and leadership development

Ok, so nice story, but why is it important in terms of personal development and leadership? Well, it is relevant on quite a few levels.

Values

Firstly, it relates to realising the importance of my values. I had always loved adventure, but it was this journey that helped me understand that adventure was a personal value that impacted not just my holiday choices but my approach to everyday life. Adventure brings passion and fun into what I do and how I develop as a leader.

Goals and dreams

The experience also taught me a lot about setting and achieving audacious goals. The thing I wanted to do were not just physically challenging, they required money and time. I had to work hard and save to afford to do the things I wanted to. It took ten years to achieve the first goal and fifteen to fulfil the eventual dream. 

Character and resilience

And this investment of time and money is related to another product of this journey. It took determination to see the plan through. How many times did I crash, get cold and wet, feel tired or wanted to give up? Too many to count. It took grit to get up and keep going. There were plenty of times when I was disheartened by my progress or disappointed when plans failed. I had to develop a growth mindset.

But as I kept going, I found my confidence – not just in my skiing ability but in myself generally – was growing. I was also more resilient, both physically and mentally, and I carried that resilience into all aspects of my work and life.

Leadership and management

As I learned to lead myself, I also improved in my leadership of others. I had to be a good follower to develop my skills. Then I had to be a good planner and manager to organise trips. Then I found I had a vision, a dream that other people could share. And so, almost without knowing it, I developed into a leader that people wanted to follow.

Embrace challenge 

Not surprisingly, given my story, I am passionate about helping people on their leadership journey and helping them embrace challenges. Challenge does not always come in a physical form, they can come in many small and unexpected ways every day, but we can also create opportunities that stretch us. If we truly want to develop as individuals and as leaders, then we must continue to push ourselves. It is like elite sports, as managers we are either training ourselves or we are losing our competitive edge. There is little room for complacency.

So, what are you doing to get outside your comfort zone? How are you building your confidence and resilience? What are you doing to be a better boss?

Commit to something that will take you out of your comfort zone. And if you are short on ideas then drop me a line. For example, I will be working with a group of senior leaders in March 2023, who are all looking to do just this. And guess what we will be doing as we learn together?

Yes, skiing!

Why not come along as well? if you would like more details, please do contact me.


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