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LEADERSHIP LAB

Sink or swim? Three lessons I learned by facing my fear of drowning Add to ...

Steve Leslie is senior vice-president, sales, Business Solutions East, Telus Corp.

An old leadership mentor of mine told me he had a tough time adjusting to retirement because he missed the stress of learning. He believes the challenge of overcoming a new obstacle helps develop skills and new perspectives in ways other methods can’t.

His words ring true in my own career. I enjoy the development and improvement that comes from feeling uncomfortable, sometimes very uncomfortable.

For me, fitness and business go hand-in-hand; it gives me clarity. Recently, I challenged myself to do something I’ve always wanted to do: complete a triathlon. In my case, that was a 1.12-kilometre swim followed by a 40-kilometre bike ride and a 10-kilometre run.

The problem was I didn’t know how to swim.

The mere concept of swimming terrified me. I never learned to swim when I was younger and as an adult cringed at the idea of deep water. I couldn’t fathom submerging my head underwater while not knowing what lurked beneath, but I knew I would never cross that finish line if I didn’t face one of my most longstanding fears.

Training for the triathlon was the most gruelling experience of my life, both physically and mentally. At times, it felt like an impossible undertaking to become comfortable, yet alone confident, enough in the water. Learning the seemingly simplest of skills, like opening my eyes or exhaling underwater, required overcoming my body’s natural resistance and decades of anxiety.

I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I hired Ayesha, from Team Atomica, who worked with me for the months leading up to the triathlon. We started in the comfortable surroundings of swimming in pools and eventually graduated to rivers and lakes. With each session, I was feeling more confident and, after six months, I was ready to take on my first race, which would be the first time I swam in deep ocean water.

The swim was even more challenging than I anticipated, as I left the crystal-clear surroundings of a pool to the unknown of deep murky open water. In the end, I finished the race in just under three hours – a result I was extremely happy with. It was the swim, however, that I was the most proud of. Not only did I overcome my fear, I learned to appreciate the career learnings that can come from life’s modest successes.

Learning to swim forced me to challenge my natural instincts and embrace being uncomfortable. There are strong parallels between sport and leadership, and the lessons I learned not only made me a better swimmer, it made me a more mindful leader.

To be successful, you need to commit

Whether it’s business or training for a triathlon, you need to be 100 per cent committed to your goal. For me, it started when I registered for the Kiawah Island Triathlon. All of a sudden, the challenge of 1.12 kilometres of ocean became very real – there was a sense of urgency to act. When it comes to commitment in business, strong leadership cannot be mere statements or words; it must be a commitment to action.

As Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan put it in their best seller, Execution, the Discipline of Getting Things Done: “Execution is a discipline that requires tenacity, focus, and commitment.” Once you’re committed, a clear action plan is critical. After committing to the triathlon, I developed a plan, hired a coach and dedicated five mornings a week to achieving my goal.

Mentors and coaches can push you out of your comfort zone

In all aspects of our lives, we are often faced with things that are new, challenging, and even frightening. That’s why leveraging mentors is imperative. I would never have been able to complete the triathlon without the help of an inspiring coach.

Choosing mentors with diverse skills and experiences is enlightening. When you work with mentors who don’t resemble you, you expand your scope and perspective. To prepare for my triathlon, I worked with a coach who possessed a skillset that I didn’t. At our first meeting, she put me at ease and inspired confidence that in six months I would be ready – and she was right. Knowing I had a mentor to help guide me on my journey made all the difference.

Challenging yourself develops grit

I’ll never forget an executive development program from earlier in my career where Anne Mulcahy, the CEO of Xerox at the time, was asked what she believed was the most important skill to have as a leader. Without hesitation, she said, “Resolve – the ability to be pushed down, to learn, and get back up.”

Resolve and resilience (leadership traits that we like to call “grit” at Telus) are critical to achieving your goals in life and in leadership. Whether it’s an injury or a poor quarter, your ability to learn and bounce back inspires others and even shows your humanity. Grit and determination coupled with the commitment to develop and challenge yourself will always turn vision into reality.

When it comes to our careers, we develop ourselves through many means. Facing our fears and pushing the boundaries of what we thought we were capable of creates invaluable growth opportunities.

No matter where you are in your career, it’s never too late to learn something new. In business and in life, with commitment, inspiration, and a little grit we can accomplish amazing things.

Don’t be afraid to jump into the deep end.

Executives and human-resources experts share their views in the ongoing Leadership Lab series. Find more stories here and follow us @Globe_Careers.

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