Episode Focus: In this episode, I want to share some leadership thoughts that I had while climbing the Manitou Springs Incline. It’s a physically demanding endeavour that nevertheless also exercises the mind! I’ve also included lots of pictures to accompany this article.
I’ve decided to make it a little easier for people to contact VOCL or to leave a message. A Google Voice account has been established – the phone number is (719) 888-9236. It is a Colorado, USA number so you may (depending on your long distance plan) incur a phone charge. I tried to get something memorable – the best I could do was 888-9CDN… If you want to leave a comment, please feel free to add this to the others (commenting on the post, using the Speakpipe app on the website and on Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.) That number once again – (719) 888-9236.
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Leadership Thoughts While Climbing 2,000 Feet in Under a Mile
On the 5th of September 2015, I decided to try my hand (and feet, legs, and lungs) at climbing the Manitou Springs Incline (or simply, the Incline). Located in the area of my new city, Colorado Springs, this area is popular amongst fitness enthusiasts. I’ll get to the leadership thoughts shortly, but first I’ll give you a little more information about the Incline in order to place everything into context.
- The trail is the remains of a former 3 ft (914 mm) narrow gauge funicular railway whose tracks washed out during a rock slide in 1990.
- The Incline is famous for its sweeping views and steep grade, as steep as 68% in places.
- The lowest point is 6,500’ (2,000m) and the peak is at 8,590’ (2,620m), and the overall length is approximately 0.88mi (1.42km)
- The record for the climb is by Mark Fretta in 16:42 (that’s incredible)
- Parts of the trail are extremely broken and steep and will require even the fittest of hikers or trail runners to scramble over the broken rocks and steep trail. Sections of the trail have exposed pipe from the days when the Incline was a hydroelectric utility system.
In addition to the physical endeavour, the incline allows plenty of time for contemplation (at least at my speed.) I could have simply listened to podcasts on my iPhone, but I chose to get “plugged in” to nature, my fellow climbers, and my thoughts instead. I’m glad I did. The longer the climb went on, the more parallels that I could see between the incline and the journey that we follow as leaders. As such, regardless of your physical ability, climb along with me!
I can see the Incline as a faint strip amongst the trees in the hillside of Pike’s Peak (America’s Favourite Mountain). I hear some people say that it’s a pretty incredible experience. I think – “Hey, that’s something that I’d like to accomplish”. I have a vision of myself smiling on top of the Incline, successful in yet another endeavour. I can smell the fresh air, enjoy the gorgeous view from my new vantage point, and have the birds serenading me with a victorious melody.
As a leader, you need to set the vision for yourself, for your organization, and your followers. The vision should be one that inspires awe, and perhaps a little worry about whether you will be successful. The vision should be challenging – no one would rally behind a climbing up a flight of stairs! The outcome should be rewarding – this can come in many forms (monetary, growth, prestige, helping others, or a sense of self-accomplishment and self-worth). If the reward isn’t there, why start the journey in the first place?
Let me perfectly clear – you should not attempt the Incline without knowing what you are getting into. Accordingly, you need to do some research so that you have a better understanding of the trail:
- Research – For me, I first heard about the trail from a colleague. I had already seen the strip, but I didn’t know what it was. I thought that it might have been a power line. Intrigued, I decided to do little bit of research. It turns out that power is involved, but only of the human variety. I’ve already presented some information about the trail, so you now have an idea of what I was up against.
- Fitness and acclimation – I actually waited for a month after hearing about the incline before I decided to attempt the climb. Having come from sea level in Halifax, Nova Scotia only a month earlier, I didn’t feel that I had sufficiently adapted to my new altitude. I was still having moments where, all of a sudden, I felt the overwhelming desire to take some deep breaths. This would even happen while I was sleeping. As such, trying to climb over 2,000’ would not likely have ended well. To prepare, I make sure that I did a lot of walking in my local neighbourhood (not much elevation change there) and some more difficult hikes in the gorgeous city park named Garden of the Gods.
- Equipment – Remember the research piece? I did that for this section as well. Okay – this place can be hot during the summer (even at altitude) so I made sure that I had clothes that could wick out the moisture (AKA sweat) during the climb. In carrying out my fitness routine, I had purchased some trail shoes to help provide stability and grip during the climb. What I didn’t have was a means of carrying lots of water to ensure that I stayed hydrated throughout the ascent AND the subsequent descent. So, I went out and bought a 100-oz Camelbak – that’s about 3 litres of water. This backpack would also securely hold my wallet and keys during the trip (I did NOT want to have to retrace my steps) and hold some Clif Bars for nutrition if required. I also made sure that I had put on some sunscreen (required) and bug spray (not really required).
As a leader, you have your vision in mind. Have you done some research to make sure that this is something that you want to accomplish? Have you prepared yourself and your team (mentally, emotionally, and physically) for the task ahead?
Psyching up or psyching out?
The research has been done – check. The best vision, however, has ZERO chance of succeeding if steps are not taken towards its accomplishment. Therefore, I got up early in the morning, had a small cup of coffee and a bagel to ensure that I had some energy for the task ahead. It’s the same breakfast that I’ve taken before marathons, and it has served me well over time. I also made sure that I had a big glass of water to start the hydration process early. As I was making my simple breakfast, the tyranny of doubt started setting in. Did I do enough research? Did I get the right gear? Am I sufficiently prepared? There was a little temptation to simply go back to my comfortable bed, but the excitement of the journey was simply too much and I left the house quickly thereafter.
The drive to Manitou Springs was an uneventful 20-25 minutes with little traffic. As I started getting close, I could see the Incline as a thin brown strip going up the side of the mountain. As I got closer, perspective really started kicking in – “Wow – that’s steep!” I parked the car at a location that provides free shuttle service to the Incline. On the bus, I got to chat with a few fellow climbers – you could tell the newbies like me since they projected an air of nervous energy…
The bus ride was a short ten minutes, and then we were at the foot of the incline – well, as close as the bus could get anyway. I found myself with approximately a 400m walk to get to the START of the incline. This was uphill, and that is when some more self-doubt started setting in. “Oh my goodness, if it’s like this at the start, what will the actual incline be like?” I also noticed the porta-potties nearby, and I made a beeline for them. Memories of people saying “that looks way too difficult (for you was implied) – are you SURE you want to do this?”
I was in the process of psyching myself out; I caught myself and started changing the dialogue. “I have done my research, and I am well prepared mentally, physically, and emotionally. This is something that I have wanted to accomplish; today is the day that I will reach my goal!” As soon as I said mentally said that to myself, I noticed a remarkable thing – I stood up straighter, my face broke into a smile, and I started to walk with confidence. I had stopped psyching myself out and was now fully prepared for the day’s adventure.
When you and your team are facing a challenge, what language are you using? Is it the language of psyching out, or of psyching up? If not everyone is psyched up (and not everyone will be), what steps do you need to take as a leader to position your team for optimal success?
The Initial Rush – The Start to 250m
There is an ominous sign at the base of the incline – “WARNING: This is an EXTREME trail. Use at your own risk.” As you turn away from the sign, you notice railway ties, sloping gently upwards, then quickly steepening until they disappeared into the light blue sky. I started my Runtastic app on my iPhone so that I could keep track of how far I had gone and how much time had elapsed – I’m motivated by numbers! I had a final quick moment of hesitation before putting my foot down on the first railroad tie, but the moment passed, my foot came down, the timer was started, and I was off!
The start was no harder than many of the outdoor steps that I had previously taken going into businesses or libraries, and certainly less steep than what I encounter in hotels. I was filled with energy, and it felt like this was going to be a fantastic day. “I’m finally on the way to accomplishing my goal!” I was careful of not going too quickly, however. My previous road races taught me that going out too quickly too early usually resulted in a slower, more agonizing finish. It was hard to stay reigned in, however, since I felt caught up in the emotion of the moment and the energy and pace of the climbers beside me.
The initial rush is exciting, but make sure that you and your team don’t burn up all of your energy at the start, especially on longer duration goals. Know their capabilities and pace accordingly.
Post-Start (and Excitement) Reality – 250m to 500m
*Note: the following distances are what I was getting from the GPS on my phone. The actual distance of 1,420m (as found on Wikipedia) is shorter than my measured 2,380m, but you can still get the gist of where I was on various stages of the climb.
The initial excitement has disappeared, and the work has truly begun. The distance between the railroad ties has started to decrease, and the angle between the railroad ties has started to increase. My breathing has started to become a little more laboured, and I’ve even started taking some breaks on the side of the trail; I’m not alone doing this. I find myself exchanging places with people that I had met on the bus. I would take a break and they would go by; I would then pass them as they were taking a break. If this was a race, then it would have been the slowest and strangest race that I had ever been in!
This was an interesting phase. This was the first big gut check – I had to determine whether this was still the goal that I wanted to pursue. The hard work had begun, and the enormity of the task had set in. I looked back several times to see the view, but it also struck me that if I was going to back down from the challenge, this was the time to do it! The desire to accomplish my goal was stronger than the feeling of discomfort, so after another drink of water, I decided to press on.
You and your team have started towards your vision, but now the hard work has truly begun. Do you still have the drive (and resources) to accomplish this vision? At this stage, you have a better understanding of the scope of the work ahead. Although it was too late for me, do you require more resources, training, etc? If so, perhaps you can “pause” to get those final additions that will lead to success instead of backing down from the challenge.
Communicating – 500m to 1,000m
It’s amazing how creative the mind can be when you give it the opportunity. In this case, I asked nothing of my mind except to run the autonomous functions such as breathing (becoming much more laboured at this stage), and putting one foot in front of the other. All of a sudden, I remembered that I needed to share this journey with friends and family.
I started posting on Facebook for several reasons. First, I hadn’t told my family that I was doing this – they were back in Canada at the time. It struck me that if anything should happen to me, they should at least have a few breadcrumbs to try to piece together what happened. Second, I wanted to bring people an adventure that they may not otherwise be able to undertake based on distance or physical ability. Third, from a selfish reason, I also wanted their words of support and encouragement along the way – my daughter’s dry sense of humour with “Please don’t die, Daddy” did help somewhat. Finally, it was a convenient “excuse” to take a breather and to temporarily take my mind away from the discomfort of the climb.
I also made sure that I communicated with fellow climbers. It was interesting to hear their stories about where they were from, why they wanted to climb the Incline, and how they were doing. I even met someone who had just come into Colorado Springs from sea level the night before! I was in awe since I remembered how I needed to adapt to the thinner atmosphere when I first got to Colorado; the Incline is not something I would have even considered at that stage.
Communication is key in any endeavour – with outside stakeholders, with your team, and with yourself. Make sure that you communicate early and often, and in the fashion best suited to those with whom you will be communicating. What if there are some things that you simply can’t share with others? Then try finding a coach or mentor for some one-on-one discussions. Another option would be a mastermind of leaders undergoing similar challenges; they may have already solved a challenge that you and your team are facing.
Making a Tough Decision – 1,270m (just over half way)
Perhaps the evilest and most sadistic part of the incline comes a little over the halfway mark of the climb; an off-ramp that allows you to go back down on a much easier trail. My mind came at me with some awfully tempting and logical reasoning. “You have accomplished so much! Why not stop here, and come back another day when you have adapted better to the atmosphere – you can tell that the air is getting thinner still.” My mind also started introducing more doubt. “Your legs are tired, and you are breathing very heavily. Do you really think you can make it to the top? If something happens, it can take First Responders a long time to get to you”
It was at this time that I heard one of my fellow climbers vocalize those very thoughts. I had the opportunity to commiserate, but all of a sudden, the leader in me came out. I can’t remember the exact words, but it was along the lines of “You have accomplished so much today, and you should be proud of yourself. Yes, you can call it a day and take the Barr trail down. I remember that you told me earlier that you were looking forward to standing at the top of the summit and taking a picture there. You were so psyched up – is that goal still worth the temporary discomfort of climbing for another 40 minutes? Also, you may not have the opportunity to do this again for quite some time (he was from out-of-state) – do you think that you will regret taking the exit in the days and weeks to come?” Those words were for me as much as it was for him, but they solidified our resolve. I left that area soon thereafter, if for no other reason than to remove the temptation.
As a follower, you may not have the opportunity to make those tough choices. As a leader, however, it’s all up to you. Your followers WILL look towards you when times get tough and will get their cues from you. You may very well find yourself in a position where it actually makes better sense to change your approach, to pivot, or to even reverse course – you don’t want to be a thoughtless victim of the “sunk cost bias” in which you decide to throw good time/money/resources into a project even when it no longer makes sense to do so. If you do change course, however, make sure that it’s for the right reason and not simply because “it’s hard.” Very few things that are worthwhile in life come easily, and the pain of regret will hurt long after the momentary discomfort has passed.
Also, note that in my words I used the language of both moving towards something (standing at the top of the Incline) and moving away from something (later regret at taking the easy road down). I did not know what language motivated this individual since I had just met him, so I used both. What about your followers – what language is best suited to them?
Gutting It Out – 1,550m
It’s getting really steep… False summit – darn!!! I knew about it from research… It still caught me by surprise… I see another peak in the distance… It’s taken me an hour… To get here… Going 30’ at a time… How much further??? The footing is … much more uneven… and erratic… Some sections have two 6” railroad ties… On top of each other… To create a step… The next step can be a foot (30cm)… or more… in elevation. Need another break…
At some point, your task may become all-consuming. You may find it tough to communicate efficiently or with eloquence. You may find that you are fighting for every step that you take forward. You may even feel as if you can’t breathe. And you’re the leader! Just imagine what your followers must be feeling! Remember, however, that as a leader you are not alone. If you have built a strong team, and have been effective in communicating your vision, you may very well find that your followers may be strong when you are weak. They may help you during those tough times. Together, you can reach the summit…
Maintaining Your Focus – 2,000m
I am close, but I’m not there yet. I’ve come a long way, and am proud of myself for not backing down at 500m, and for not taking the easy way out at the halfway mark. If I stopped now, however, I have not achieved the success that I originally set out for. I also start thinking about how people can accomplish this in less than an hour, let alone in under 20 minutes!
But then I catch myself and realize that this is not the point. Does it matter that I wasn’t the first one to climb the incline? Nope. Does it matter that my time is not the fastest ever? Nope – as I said before, this wasn’t a race for me. Could I do it better / faster next time? Yes, but I will contemplate this later. Now is about living in the moment, and being the best version of myself. Ahhh, I have the true summit in sight. For some reason, my breaks start becoming less frequent, I have more energy, and a smile breaks out on my face.
Some business leaders may be reading this and shaking their head thinking, “I need to be first-to-market for this…” or “I need to be a world leader in that…” I disagree. If you have a compelling vision and have built a strong team behind you, first-to-market doesn’t matter. Think Zappos – they weren’t the first to sell shoes, or even market them online, but they have been incredibly successful. World leaders in any category are transient at best – Polaroid was a world leader in near-instantaneous photography, and they are now largely irrelevant. What about non-profits? Just for fun, I “Googled” lung cancer associations, and stopped counting after ten. Only one person can be the world leader (using whatever metrics you want), but does that mean that no one else should try? Absolutely not! Each one has a compelling vision, and each strives to make a positive difference in people’s lives. To me, that’s a HUGE win! (BTW, I think that the Nova Scotia Lung Association is doing a fantastic job and is worth checking out)
Success – 2,380m
Yesssssssssssss! The final steps go back to almost horizontal, and I can see the final railroad tie. People at the top are encouraging me to finish strong. I don’t need any more breaks; I’m renewed with energy. 3 – 2 – 1 – that’s it! I’ve made it!
At this point, I could simply take the Barr Trail back down to the start of the Incline, but instead, I choose to celebrate my accomplishment. I make sure to stop my Runtastic app and take a screenshot – I want to make a record of my goal (of course, I also have to take the obligatory selfie…) I take the time to look around. I’ve been on mountains before, and I always appreciate the view. Somehow, however, the view is so much sweeter since I have EARNED it. Accomplishing the goal was a result of planning, preparation, and perspiration.
Funny enough, I very quickly thereafter found myself encouraging others to finish strong as well. I wanted other people to have that same sense of accomplishment. I wanted other people to achieve their goals as well. There is something powerful about having achieved something together – it creates an instantaneous common bond.
After a while, I started heading down the Barr Trail to go back to my car. I didn’t see it as a downward journey that was much easier than going up. I saw it as an opportunity to reflect on my accomplishment, to think about what went well and what could be improved the next time. More importantly, it allowed me time to think about what my next goal should be. Hmmm, the Barr camp is pretty tempting. Looking even further ahead, and with more preparation, the summit of Pikes Peak calls to me…
As a leader, you need to ensure that you take the time to celebrate the accomplishment that you and your team have been working so hard towards. It doesn’t have to be at the Ritz Carleton, but it should be done in a way that would be considered special by your team. Make sure that you highlight the individual contributions of your team – their skills, their energy, their tenacity, etc. Take the time to help others achieve their goals – you will find this equally rewarding. Finally, don’t rest on your laurels. You and your team have proven that you can accomplish more. Set an audacious goal, with several achievable smaller goals along the way to get you there.
By the way, if you are in the Colorado Springs area and want to climb the incline with me, I’d be happy to! We can discuss leadership (or anything else) between laboured breaths and we can celebrate our accomplishment when we reach the top together.
Bonus – Here is a YouTube clip of the Incline in three minutes, as done from the perspective of a backpack.
VOCL Closing Thoughts / Future Episodes
What’s been happening
Election 2015 happened on 19 October 2015. It was great to see so many Canadians involved in the democratic process, and I look forward to even greater participation in future years. What I truly appreciate is the number of candidates that put their names forward in the hopes of representing the other people in their ridings. Although not everyone can get elected, every one of them is a community leader in their own right. For those who have previously held office, I thank you so much for your selfless dedication to creating a better future for all Canadians, regardless of political ideologies. For those of you returning to office, or are first time parliamentarians, I look forward to following your efforts as we build our country together.
Takeaways and introspection
In this podcast episode, I have been talking about the process from setting your vision, the steps that you and your team need to take to achieve the goal and highlight some of the challenges that you may face along the way. Your vision should be inspiring and worthwhile. You need to make sure that your team is ready, and that you have given them the resources and guidance that they need to succeed. You need to not only be able to anticipate challenges but to find a way to overcome them, step by step. You need to make sure that you not only celebrate your success but the success of everyone on your team. Finally, remember that this is not the end of your journey, but just a momentary pause as you reach for that next summit.