Six Ways to Increase Your Leadership Capacity
Expand your capacity to lead well when things get hard
Every day, mountain guides juggle client safety, client experience, team culture, risk and hopefully attaining a difficult summit. A good guide simultaneously cracks a joke, assesses the fatigue level of the group, tracks subtle weather trends, and evaluates potential hazards like avalanches and rock fall to reach a goal effectively. Sound like leading people to you?
Mountain guiding takes a lot of energy, awareness, and competence. In guiding we call this bandwidth: the ability to take in, judge, and act on a mass of critical information at once. A guide with low bandwidth misses important details, puts people at risk, and alienates his or her clients. A guide with high bandwidth creates a welcoming, safe, and exhilarating experience in the mountains with apparent ease.
Mountain guides lead like business leaders
A leader’s typical day might look similar to the guide’s day: simultaneously asking about someone’s children in baseball, connecting dots in a new strategy, clarifying expectations, and coaching someone through a challenge at work. Make no mistake. If you are doing it right, leadership is darn hard work. You’ll feel tired and maybe even scattered from time to time. Just how tired and how scattered you get depends on your bandwidth.
In the field of leadership development research, bandwidth is linked to cognitive resource theory. We are simply more comfortable in familiar situations that suit our personalities, experience, and strengths. For example, I am far happier high on an ice climb than at a networking soiree. In low-stress situations, it’s best to use our intelligence to make decisions and lead people. However, research shows that intelligence can be a detriment in high-stress situations, where experience drives success.
Unfortunately for me, all leadership can’t occur on multi-pitch climbs. Of course, leaders should harness personal strengths, but they must also have the wherewithal to lead in situations when they are tired, out of place, lack experience, and are just plain uncomfortable. That takes discipline, practice, and high bandwidth.
Here are six ways you can expand your leadership capacity...
1. Mind your wellness
“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” This isn’t a quote from a woo-woo executive retreat. General Patton said it. At some point, each of us experiences our bandwidth rapidly shrinking. We get cold, tired, hungry, overworked, or make too many difficult or emotional decisions in a row. Then we either turn into the Snickers commercial diva or check into hotel apathy. Neither option makes a good leader.
In guiding we call it “having your systems wired.” I don’t need to worry about staying warm, cooking a bomber meal, or getting too tired. I am in peak shape, I am hydrating (and making sure you are too), and I know where my stuff is at all times. No frantic searches for my rain shell when that storm cloud opens up. Instead, I am warm and dry, able to move swiftly from client to client to help them pull out their gear, crack jokes, and keep morale high as the rain pours down. It looks like magic to a client, but in reality, I spend 10-14 hours a week on my fitness, I study the guiding craft, and I practice outdoor skills and systems voraciously.
Leaders must do the same. Make wellness a priority and a habit. You have a duty to eat well, sleep enough, maintain fitness, read and absorb new ideas, and try new ways to communicate and inspire people. As Aristotle pointed out, if you’re not getting better you’re getting worse. So get better.
2. Lead proactively
When I started flying helicopters, I was “behind the ball.” I could not anticipate that when I applied power, the nose would swing right. Then as I was trying to correct the nose, I would miss a clearance from the tower. Now spinning, frustrated, and not taking off as directed I would spiral down (hopefully not literally).
Leaders have to anticipate the next couple of steps. Understand the second and third-order consequences of your decisions. Plan out the next quarter, year, or five years. People rely on you to plan, prevent issues before they arise, and leverage opportunities far down the trail. If you allow yourself to get bogged down with putting out fires and day-to-day work, you will eventually go into a tailspin and crash and burn like I almost did so many times.
Increasing your bandwidth allows you to get the day-to-day stuff done, and fulfill your mandate to think strategically.
3. Build your leadership experience purposefully
Nobody has much bandwidth while learning to do something for the first time. Remember the first time you got on the freeway driving a car? Terrifying. I promise you were not thinking about complicated professional relationships with potential stakeholders or mulling over strategic business ideas.
Remember getting on the freeway today? Probably not. You have so much experience that it’s automated, allowing you to focus on other cognitive tasks instead. This is why we have developed all our adventure leadership curricula to leverage applied leadership. Leadership training must offer hands-on experience or it’s worth little to nothing when you get on the proverbial freeway for the first time.
Ok, but how can you practice leadership? Simple. Put yourself in uncomfortable situations and practice stepping up. Go hiking and help decide which way to go at a fork in the trail even when you are cold and wet. Get on a rope team and practice shouting encouragement up to the person in front of you instead of complaining about your cold feet. Volunteer or join the board of a non-profit you care about and then help set a vision and follow through.
What won’t work? Don’t rely on just reading a few books and doing what you always do hoping leadership will click.
4. Learn how to multitask correctly
How many distractions are there in your day-to-day? Extraneous emails, tasks you should have delegated, a sore back, a nagging fight with your spouse, regret for missing another workout? They add up fast, and pretty soon what would normally be fairly easy for you becomes nearly impossible.
Time and energy management are critical. You should look into developing that competency as well. But, here’s good news. You can multitask, just in the right way. We have two lines of thinking: analytical in our prefrontal cortex and intuitive in our emotional brain. They are largely disconnected. When you have enough experience in something (like driving a car), you can do that intuitively while you use parallel processing in your analytical brain.
Neat, right? Here’s an example. I am digging an avalanche pit to evaluate snowpack, crunching numbers, and judging data analytically, but I have enough experience to notice that one client seems cold and should put a puffy on ASAP, another has not had water yet this morning, and the sun is already hitting the slope we want to ski – increasing the risk of wet avalanches. Another example: I am reading over last quarter’s KPIs and crunching the data, but I also hear a note of dismay in my coworker’s voice and intuitively ask how he’s doing. Turns out his father just got diagnosed with cancer, and I am really glad I asked.
Great, so how do I build intuition and parallel processing capability? Simple – practice. Our brains recognize patterns and once you have done the thing enough times it will become automatic like a habit. On team adventures, we practice both leadership skills and interpersonal skills to face fears, build resilience, and listen deeply so that these leadership strategies become habits.
5. Build leadership systems to support you
I tie knots at the end of my ropes when I climb. As a guide, I know there are times I don’t need to, but it’s silly for me to make that decision every time. Worse when I am extremely tired, I might make the wrong decision and rappel to my death. Hmm… seems like developing an automated system for that makes sense.
Having systems helps cut down our decision fatigue. Decisions take a lot of mental and emotional energy. When we automatically know what to do, we save that time and energy to apply to something else. In Principles, Ray Dalio recommends reviewing each decision you make and deriving important principles from them. When an employee lies, I do these things. Then for repetitive situations (and aren’t most of them?), you can figure out much more quickly what to do without days of agonizing about it.
6. Be crystal clear about your bandwidth to lead
If you don’t recognize that you have run out of bandwidth, or worse your ego won’t let you admit it, you become your team’s biggest problem quickly.
Leaders who miss important details, snap at their people, and get angry about silly issues cannot move their team forward. If you recognize your bandwidth is narrowing due to fatigue, lack of experience, or the sheer volume of input, find a solution fast. Delegate something, push the timeline out to something more reasonable, or have someone take over for a minute (or day) while you get some rest. You do yourself and your team no favors operating outside your bandwidth.
Bandwidth ultimately allows you to get a few steps ahead of the game as a leader. You will increasingly think about the second and third-order effects of your decisions, more consistently set your people up for success, become a strategic thinker, and build trust that when things get bad you’ll step up instead of crumbling. Take the time to build this capacity through practice, reflection, and intentional experience. Take care of yourself, put yourself in uncomfortable situations, and grow.