If you haven’t already seen Man On Wire, the amazing documentary about Philippe Petit’s attempt to walk on a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, then I highly recommend making the time to watch it. Not only is it a great documentary about an audacious act and a larger-than-life personality, it offers some important lessons for any leader who is trying to accomplish greatness.
There are three basic connections that I see between tightrope walking and doing great things from a leadership perspective:
1. Courage to be audacious
2. Extensive preparation
3. An understanding of balance
Anytime that someone attempts to do something great in their work, whether it be change the culture, transform an industry or radically reconfigure the approach to a market, they will often feel at times like they are walking on a tightrope. The possibilities for failure are tremendous, the payoff is unclear and usually, everyone thinks they are crazy.
The three bullets listed above are all important (and probably obvious) to any leader who is trying to lead a company or an organization through great change. If you do not have the courage to strive for the audacious, then you probably have no business being on the tightrope. This tends to be a self-selecting trait.
There are some leaders who are full of courage and are inspired to reach for the big goals, but who do not see the value in doing the due diligence beforehand. (See J.C. Penney.) Those leaders seldom make it very far, however, and their fall is never all that surprising.
Finally, there are those leaders who struggle to keep their balance when the winds are blowing and the conditions are working against them. These are the ones who over-correct when they get bad feedback or who become too focused on one problem and forget the big picture of what they are doing. Balance is about making the thousand little adjustments needed to achieve the goal and not about sudden, dramatic changes in strategy or movement.
Which leads us to the most important point for all leaders and tightrope walkers alike: keep your eyes on your goal. There is no information that is useful for a tightrope walker when he/she looks down. And dwelling on failure is the same as dwelling on falling. If you can follow the three lessons and remember to keep your intentions on your goal, then walking on a tightrope can be like the Philippe Petit’s dance between the two towers.