Last week, I wrote about Jean Francois Blondin, the first person to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls. As I thought about his story this week, I was reminded of another famous tightrope artist – Karl Wallenda. He and his family, known as the “Flying Wallendas,” were famous for their trapeze and tightrope routines. Their signature act was walking the tightrope as a team – stacked on top of each other in a pyramid.
Karl was not only the leader of the Wallenda clan; he was a daring individual tightrope walker as well. He was known for performing high above the ground without a safety net. He felt the net gave him an excuse to be less than perfect. He knew that the key to a successful walk lay in keeping his focus on his goal at the other end of the rope, not on what could happen if he fell. Falling was simply not an option for Karl Wallenda.
Wallenda used to perform shows where he’d walk across a tightrope stretched between two buildings. His last stunt occurred in Puerto Rico and involved a walk between the city’s two tallest buildings. But something was different this time. Wallenda overheard some people talking about another tightrope walker who had recently fallen and he began to focus on that. He began to worry about what could go wrong and on the day of the stunt was preoccupied with checking the ropes.
Halfway across the rope, Wallenda lost his balance and fell to his death.
When leaders start focusing on what they have to lose versus what they have to gain, the only direction they can go is down. The result may not be physically deadly, but the consequences are still dire. Projects stagnate, innovation dies, and communication stops. Forward progress comes to a halt as everyone either adopts the leader’s myopic focus or opts out.
To move forward, you have to look ahead, not down. You can’t blaze new ground if you’re busy building fences. You can’t WOW your customers or employees if you’re worried about the potential downside.
I’m not saying you should be reckless. You can’t ignore obvious dangers. But there’s a balance that needs to be achieved. No great achievement is without risk. But nothing great is ever achieved without it.