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SupaThink: Skiing and Leadership

My parents are absolute skiing legends. My mother was one of Austria's first female state-certified ski instructors, and my father was part of the national demonstration team. This year, after 75years+ on skis, my father decided to call it quits. For most Austrians skiing is a national identity, for my father, it was his passion. For many years, he was simply the best skier on the mountain. In his eighties, he would still effortlessly glide by in his unique and elegant style, making people stop and just stare in admiration. While my mother continues to ski, with her hip outfits, high-energy short swings, still doing it better than most, my father is going the calmer route and is hitting the pool instead. Thinking about my parent’s legacy and the countless times we went skiing, I thought about what I have learned from them and the application to leadership.



One of the most impactful lessons for me was the importance of showing up early and taking advantage of the moment. Growing up, we were always the first on the mountain. No matter what. No crowds, freshly groomed runs, the sun just peaking over the mountain range; we would ski more in the first hour than others would all day. Showing up also meant being prepared. All year my parents would stay fit, so they were ready to show-up early. I think showing up and being prepared is even more critical nowadays in our age of “distractions”. All too often, I have observed how we can fall into a lull and spend time on administration or bureaucratic items versus on what is important and meaningful. Strong leaders encourage a “carpe diem/seize-the-day” mentality, which can make all the difference.

 

My parents also had a keen understanding of the risks involved in skiing and mountaineering. They respected the mountain. To them, understanding the conditions, weather, avalanche danger, or crowds, and more importantly, preparing for these risks, were simply non-negotiables. Respecting and understanding the risks you are dealing with and only taking those that you can manage, is a key lesson I have learned from spending time in the mountains. It is still surprising to me that so many things we do all day are not effectively considered through a risk-lens. Especially during stressful times, many seem to prefer to stick their heads in the sand or, simply, don’t want to think through the downside. The most successful leaders create a culture where risk management is firmly integrated into day-to-day decision-making and not a separate control function. 

 

If my father taught a master class on the technical aspects of skiing, he would emphasize the need to learn and adapt to new gear. He knew that if you want to continue to be a better skier, you must be able to be open to changing “how” you ski. From wood-skis 10 feet long, no one today could make a turn on, to the latest flats or parabolic skis, he embraced the change and continually got better. Being open to new technologies, embracing the resulting change and taking advantage of it, is the key lesson I took away from my father’s adaptability. It may sound obvious, but when was the last time you learned a new technique or adopted a new tool, and when was the last time you experimented with your team? Creating a culture that practices being open to these changes, is one of the most important tasks of a leader in building a strong team willing to constantly improve to win.

 

My parents ski-instructed the young and the old, heads of state, and people from all over the world, from first-timers to experts. They would demonstrate tremendous patience as many would struggle with balance, making that crucial turn or simply being able to stop. Regardless of who it was, they were committed to making their students successful, conquering their fears and making every single one a little better skier. Skiing connected them to people from all walks of life, and everyone remembered them for their kindness and ability to lead them through their skiing adventure. From this, I have learned how important it is not to judge and that everyone can learn and improve, as well as, the importance to push to be able to help someone to get better. We sometimes forget that we are all on our own journey to get better at what we do. As leaders, we all can do our part in helping others succeed, by being patient, being kind and creating a genuine human connection.

 

Ever so often, my father would stop after one of his graceful turns and look out over the landscape in front of him. Looking across the valley, admiring the different peaks, he would just marvel at the beauty around him and take it all in. “So schön“ he would say, simply stating how beautiful it is, just appreciating the gift of the moment. This taught me not to let life pass you by without appreciating the moments. In our ever-increasingly hectic and stressful world, we sometimes need to pause, remind ourselves to breathe and take it all in. 

 

When I shared the news with my sons that my father decided to stop to ski, they reflected for a moment and then shared with me that when they think about skiing back home in our valley, my parents belong in it simply as a natural part of the scenery. Without them in it, the mountain is missing one of its peaks. "Belonging into the scenery” the pure definition of legacy.   

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