For about 18 months, I have been exercising regularly -- walking fast, variously called "aerobic walking" or "speed walking." When I started I could barely manage 1.25 miles at 14.5 minutes per mile; I did this about four times a week. Today I average five miles at 11.25 minutes, six or seven times a week. The latter numbers reflect a breakthrough that occurred during a recent vacation in the French Alps; examining its origins provides lessons for managers.
I arrived in France determined not to let my walking habit slip; but I was panicky because our rented house was up about 5,500 feet. I imagined the agony of walking at that altitude. Appropriately chastened, I started tentatively and managed about 1.5 relatively slow miles and a 750-foot ascent the first day; a victim of my preconception of agony, I was in agony.
On the second day, my wife and I happened to take a brief after-dinner drive, discovering a lovely village at the end of our road (where I walked). It was about 4.5 miles away and up 2,500 feet from us (at 8,000 feet). Getting to that village and back became my vague "walking dream."
Over the next few days, as I adjusted to the altitude, my walks got longer, higher, faster. But the village at the end of the road was as elusive as ever.
The breakthrough came 10 days into our stay. My wife and daughter wanted to explore a trail beyond the end of our road. "I'll walk up," I nonchalantly proclaimed, "and meet you on the far side of the village."
I took off, walked my usual distance uphill (about 2.5 miles by then), and ran low on oxygen. But I'll be darned if I was going to be discovered in a panting heap by the roadside. I know I can walk fast, but not speed walk, almost any distance; that's what I determined to do -- and did. I made it to the village before Kate and Sarah arrived by car and greeted them by holding out an insouciant hitchhiker's thumb.
The next day I speed-walked to within a half-mile of the village. The day after, I made it to the village. Two more days and I'd passed the village and gone another half-mile up a steep trail. I ended the trip routinely walking seven to nine miles, ascending over 2,500 feet at a fast clip.
When I got home to Vermont, where my walk had plateaued for months at 3.5 miles and 12 minutes, I began to walk 4.5 tosix miles at an 11.25-minute average.
This time-compressed vignette reveals the typical tangle associated with the accomplishment of anything. And I grossly oversimplified even in this trivial case: Suppose Kate and Sarah had gotten the urge to ramble past the village five rather than 10 days into our trip; at that early juncture, I'd have had plenty of reason not to take on the big goal.
In any event, here are some "lessons" from the mountain.
Memorable goals help, and most emerge by chance. I accidentally discovered my village in the mist and attributed all sorts of heroic properties to it.
You do what you have to do. My agreement to meet Sarah and Kate at the village meant, simply, that I had to get there. I did.
Emotion is essential. There was no way that I was not going to meet Sarah and Kate at the end of the road.
How you do it is irrelevant, but once you's done it, it's done. I "decided" that it didn't matter how slowly I walked to the village; so I made it -- slowly. The point is, I made it. The following day I did it fast, simply because I knew I could do it at all.
Once done, it takes. Once the French experience had occurred, previously unthinkable feats became, without ado, routine back in Vermont.
None of it was planned. Beyond a vague desire to keep up the walking habit on vacation, I could not have imagined such perfect and complex circumstances for spurring me to bust loose from my prior, persistent "limits."
Are these lessons from a walk in the country applicable to the complex world of business? I believe so:
(1) Treat accidents as allies; effective leadership consists of opportunistically responding to accidents, not wasting precious time lamenting the unfairness of untoward circumstances (weak knees, steep hills).
(2) Make room for people to become self-motivated (e.g., promote accidents and cheer-lead for those who respond to them); only goals that we discover ourselves and which give us an ego stake ("meet Sarah and Kate at the village or bust") will animate us to continuously improve performance.
(3) Don't overplan; the typical plan is meaningless, the goals lifeless -- and everything changes in the process anyway.