By Bob Parsanko and Paul Heagen
Adam was stuck.
The work to this point had been almost easy, familiar—and largely without obstacles. Three years into his first job as CEO, his place in life felt natural. He was just drawing on what had made him a success all along—talent and drive, a dash of charm, but more than anything, confidence.
Confidence, as Adam saw it, laid bare your opportunities, put your skills to the test, and muffled that inner voice that sometimes rose up too early and too often, injecting self-doubt. Most obstacles are not new, they are just different enough to throw you off. Certainly, something in your experience can service you, no matter your situation; it’s just a matter of knowing how to apply it.
Yet, he had to admit, this time he was stuck.
I can’t stay in this predicament, he scolded himself. I don’t do stuck.
Adam pressed himself tighter against the dark tan surface to recenter his gravity so he could look below and to the side without falling. His right foot was angled into a crevice in the rock, but his left foot relied on friction alone to stay planted on the smooth wall of the boulder.
He was far from worried, and panic was another world away. One foot wedged, another sucking the side of the boulder, fingertips curled white-knuckled into shallow recesses, he was plenty safe. Still, he had to admit, he was not going anywhere the way things stood.
The boulder was a stretch for the more casual rock climber, jutting about 15 feet up from a smooth granite slab. It was one of the larger boulders that Adam took on during his hikes through the canyon near his vacation home, but it was not the kind that had ever posed a problem before. Adam had free-climbed rocks like these back when he was in college, when he and his buddies would hike in for a couple of days to get away from the books, get a good burn going in their arms and legs, and just fill their lungs with some clear air.
Today, if this boulder had been any taller or tougher, he would not have taken it on. You save that bravado for when you are not alone. With the responsibilities he had back in Chicago, he could take risks, but not stupid gambles. Get it wrong and you are there with cramping muscles, aching toes and fingers, and a surface suddenly bereft of handholds or safe ledges. At times like that, an invisible gravity just hauls on you.
His plan had been to traverse the face of the boulder at a shallow angle, following the whisper of a seam that barely split the smooth surface. But now that he was up here living it, the next foothold and the next handhold were just out of reach. He could work his way back down, but Adam knew that stepping back posed its perils. Going down, oddly, put you more at the mercy of gravity. The slight momentum of moving down was sometimes enough to overcome friction and send you flying.
Several minutes had passed while Adam patiently sized up his situation, but now it was time to make a move. Make something happen. Make him anything but stuck.
He reached down carefully with one hand to knead the chalk bag suspended on his belt, coating his fingers with powder, then did the same with the other hand. Steeled with a renewed resolve, he figured the next handhold option was not unreasonable. He would just have to time everything right and make a catlike move to the next mooring, letting his momentum overcome the relentless pull of gravity. He wriggled his fingertips to lock in their grip on the bare dents in the wall above and mentally practiced his next move as if it were a ballet: slide his left foot up to the next coarse section to get some grip and then rock himself upward just enough to trust leaving the right foot’s anchor spot and replaster his hands and feet on the next set of coordinates.
The process of realizing his situation and deliberating on what to do about it took more time than he realized. Adam now was feeling the heat of the sun on his neck; sweat began to bead on his arms and trickles down his legs. Salty perspiration glistened on his eyelids, and he shook his head quickly to fling the drops away so they did not distract him.
He hoisted himself up ever so slightly so he could wrest his right foot from its foothold. His body seemed suddenly heavy as his fingers and left foot clung to the cliff, waiting for his right foot to find a place to share the load.
People always say accidents—the bad ones—seem to happen in slow motion. This time, the whole event compressed and seemed to happen all at once—he felt his arms quivering, heard a scraping sound, felt the scuff of the wall against his face, felt his fingers and toes slip out of their roosts, saw the blue sky and the burning sunlight filling up the frames of his sunglasses as he fell away from the wall.
Sorry, Maureen… Jason…
A white-hot jolt of pain rocketed up from his right heel and he heard a thick crunch as his helmet thumped heavily against the ground before all went dark.
Excerpt from “The Leader’s Climb: A Business Tale of Rising to the New Leadership Challenge” by Bob Parsanko and Paul Heagen (Bibliomotion, September 2012). All rights reserved.
Bob Parsanko, president and founder of Executive Insights, and Paul Heagen, president and founder of Defining Moments Consulting, are the authors of “The Leader’s Climb” (Bibliomotion, September 2012). For more information, visit http://www.theleadersclimb.com.