During my leadership seminars, I pose a thought challenge to my groups:
I have laid down on the floor a 10-foot long board that is very thick and about 8 inches wide. Can you walk across it? While some people think about trying to see if there is some trick in the question, the answer from everyone is always, “Yes.” Next, I’m going to raise it on some solid blocks about six inches off the ground. Can you walk across it? Again, some people look for the trick, but the answer is yes. Okay, now I’m going to raise it two feet off the ground. Can you walk across it? Now, there is hesitation. A one or two may say they’re afraid of heights. Most everyone says yes.
Now, I’m going to raise the board to six feet. This time, about half say they would not cross the board. When I say I’m raising it to ten feet, the group willing to cross gets smaller. At 20 feet, only one or two says yes. At 30 feet, I rarely get volunteers.
I ask the group, what’s the difference whether you walk the board at two inches or 20 feet? Isn’t it the same? The difference is the Wallenda Factor.
The Wallendas were a family of circus performers known for performing amazing feats on the tightrope without a net. Karl Wallenda, the founder, was once interviewed about what it took to become a tightrope walker. He said they start out training on a rope on the ground and eventually raise it as they get better. As you go higher, Wallenda said, you have to work a little harder, pay attention to more details. You have to take greater care, especially when doing an act that involves other people, as the Wallendas did with one that involved up to seven of them.
According to Karl Wallenda, the only real difference between walking the tightrope a foot off the ground and 20 stories off the ground from one building to another is the risk to you and those working with you. The skills and techniques are pretty much the same, regardless of the height – with some added focus and greater attention.
I use this thought challenge when a group or individual gets to the point where they face a decision about taking on a major project, going for a promotion, taking the plunge and going out on their own to start a business or any number of other challenges they might face.
When you are facing that decision, to take the plunge or not, it is the risk that often holds us back. If you have successfully implemented a project, led a team, managed a department, or even run a small business, then you have the basic skills to move up to another challenge.
It is one thing to know that you still need to build up your skills to take on a challenge and try to work at getting better. Don’t let fear and risk be what controls you.