Leadership and Skydiving: Lessons in Informed Risk-Taking

“Skydiving is a lot like leadership,” my partner observed, as the altimeter of cramped Cessna 182 slowly crept passed 9,000 feet. For the remaining several thousand feet, I pondered that thought, until the roar of the open door implored me into the wide open blue.

Only several hours and two additional jumps later did I revisit this notion. Indeed, there are striking similarities between the two activities. Both require courage, albeit for starkly different reasons. There is a transcendence of self involved in both. And just as skydivers rely on their ability to assess risk, so to do leaders need to be able to accept inherent risk in decision making and in influencing followers.

With roughly eighty jumps under my belt, most skydivers would view me as a novice skydiver, a fact that both impresses and perplexes those who haven’t jumped at all (or have perhaps experienced freefall once or twice as a tandem student). In comparison, a leader who has made eighty life or death decisions would most certainly be held in high esteem for the experience gained in those endeavors (presuming, of course, that those decisions had not resulted in multiple, avoidable tragedies).

I’m often asked why I engage in such a “risky” sport. Indeed, I would be a fool to ignore the potential disasters that are entailed in plummeting two miles at an average speed of 125 mph. And yet, most of those who jump display an incredible penchant for ensuring their own safety.

Between redundant equipment checks (before leaving the ground and again in the aircraft prior to jumping), careful studying of wind and weather patterns in planning for the jump, repeated observations of other jumpers landing, intensive rehearsals with other skydivers with regard to exiting the plane and freefall plans, there’s little left to chance in any jump. In fact, the following five steps are critical to any successful skydive:

Planning – Ensuring proper equipment, gauging wind & weather conditions, knowing every aspect of the upcoming jump (surprising to some, not once have I ever left the plane without a detailed plan of what I would do during the 60 second freefall)

Rehearsal – Whether jumping solo or with others, we practice our exits, turns and maneuvers repeatedly before suiting up and heading to the plane

Execution – The goal is always to follow the plan, including contingency plans discussed ahead of time, in case the original plan goes awry

Evaluation – After every jump, numerous aspects of the skydive are evaluated (the exit, the quality of stability and control throughout the jump, success in linking up with fellow skydivers, accuracy in deploying the parachute at the predetermined altitude, canopy control once under parachute, and the quality of the landing). Each element is discussed and graded independently

Adjustments – Based on the grades received on earlier jumps (self-scored or by agreement with other jumpers), tweaks are made and follow-up jumps planned.

Similarly, informed risk-taking and decision-making are critical elements of quality leadership. The individual who prefers to fly “by the seat of their pants,” is bound to err in the actions and reactions they take. Leadership is all about planning, rehearsing, executing, evaluating and adjusting.

I guess Bo was right. Skydiving IS a lot like leadership.

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