How skiing can make you a better leader in the workplace

It’s my first week back at the office for 2020 after some rest and relaxation from a three-week skiing vacation.

In between gliding through groomers, dodging trees in the glades and sipping on mulled wine at après, I had a lot of time to reflect. To say the past year was challenging personally and professionally is an understatement.

In 2019 my family moved 3 times, including an overseas move, my son started a new school for the second time in 6 months, I had an invasive surgery to remove endometriosis (a disease without a cure) whilst dealing with constant change at work, trying to lead a team in a complex environment and managing a decent sized portfolio.

What helped me navigate through all these challenges and become more resilient are the skills I learned and practice in the sport of skiing, something I am a wee bit passionate about.

Skiing is a very technical sport that requires mental toughness and is more about the inner game than physical prowess.

Here are the four key lessons that I have adopted from skiing to leadership which has helped me lift my inner game at work.

Staying focused

I must be in tune with my body and the rhythm at each turn while constantly scanning the terrain and the environment around me. To stay focused and be in the moment, I practice and use mindfulness techniques while I am skiing.

I start with breathing exercises when I am on the lift and before starting the run, then pick my line, visualise going down the mountain, breathe and ski off. As a leader I practice mindfulness throughout the day to remain calm, focused and think clearly.

I use a couple of mindfulness apps and podcasts such as The Smiling Mind for short and sharp guided meditations before I start the day, in between meetings and at the end of the day.  

Taking calculated risks

Taking calculated risks is an essential element of the sport – once you’re on top of that mountain there is only one way down. I need to understand my own capabilities, my limits but also pushing myself a little out of my comfort zone. I don’t mean trying out a double black off-piste run when you can barely parallel turn but researching about the runs before you go up, taking your time to plan out the best route and pick your line.

I took a calculated risk last year by accepting a new role on a new continent and moving halfway across the world. It didn’t work out as planned but I learned so many things along the way as did my family. As a leader and as a family unit we learned that we were adaptable, can deal with uncertainty and embrace a new environment – all the skills essential for leadership and growth. 

Overcoming fears

Trusting your instincts and overcoming your fears is essential to leadership and skiing. I am an intermediate skier and like my long blue runs while perfecting my turns. I had a skiing accident a couple of years ago and am always thinking… ‘What if I fall and injure myself again?’

It is this self-limiting belief that is sometimes holding back my skiing potential. I have to challenge myself and go down those black runs where I know I have the technical ability. In leadership, you have to apply the same mentality – step out of your comfort zone, be vulnerable and overcome your fears. 

You might fail but you might also succeed.  

Dealing with setbacks

As any avid skier or snowboarder will attest, you will fall and that’s part of the sport. Another skier recently told me, if you’re not falling once in a while then you’re not challenging yourself. I certainly faced some setback, but they are usually the most rewarding experiences.

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This is a photo of me halfway down my first black run at Marmot Basin in the Rockies in Canada. I fell after my first turn as my skis caught some ice and I fell in the most spectacular fashion, skis and poles thrown everywhere, sliding down the mountain while a crowd of what seemed like a hundred people were watching (maybe there were five skiers) behind me waiting to drop in.

Once I stopped sliding, I sat up and laughed so hard (I knew I wasn’t hurt) while the skiers behind me brought down my gear. I was a little shaken and wondered how was I going to get down this mountain?

So, I sat down, practiced some mindfulness techniques and told myself “I’ve got this”. After a few minutes, I managed to get back up, side slipped (a skiing technique for challenging steeps) for a few metres and told myself to turn, then another turn and so on. Before I knew it, I was halfway down the run and stopped for this photo.   

Dealing with setbacks is a part of life and being a leader. How do you pick yourself up after falling and keep going? What tools do you have in your tool belt to help you deal with setbacks? The challenges and roadblocks are opportunities for growth and building resilience.

Skiing has given me the opportunity to practice skills that are essential for leadership in a completely different context and environment. This is where learning and growth occurs – applying the theory outside the training room. 

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Cherry is a ski enthusiast and leadership development expert who is passionate about combining these two things together. Cherry spends her spare time reading about skiing, planning for skiing holidays with her family and just generally thinking or talking about skiing.