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How to be a Tough – Yet Amazing – Act to Follow

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to speak to 120 leaders at the U.S. division of a European-based company. The leaders were embarking on the next phase of a learning journey that they had begun the past summer. My job was to kickoff the new phase and to get them excited about the upcoming learning.

Third on the day’s agenda, I was comfortably seated in the front of the room, waiting for my time to speak. The company’s General Manager, who is responsible for all U.S. business, started the day by reviewing current performance, explaining future opportunities, and sharing his commitment to the leadership development efforts.

He did an excellent job. I felt confident that based on his set-up, I would be able to deliver on my role.

As the General Manager wrapped up his presentation, my attention turned to the next name on the agenda. The person who would speak just before me was Jamie Andrew. Although I had worked with this client for years, and knew many of the leaders, I didn’t recognize Jamie’s name. In a moment, all of that would change.

The General Manager introduced Jamie explaining that he had first heard him speak at a corporate meeting in Switzerland. He shared that Jamie’s story was inspirational and he knew that everyone in the room would be riveted by Jamie. The crowd provided a warm welcome as the doors to the room opened and Jamie walked to the front.

Over the next 30 minutes, Jamie told the story of climbing with a friend in the Alps some 20 years earlier. Not far from the top of the ascent, the weather turned and the two climbers were forced to make a difficult decision. They had to either descend the treacherous mountain in near whiteout conditions or wait out the storm at the summit. They elected the latter and managed to dig out a small spot in the ice to hunker down for the night.

One night turned into five.

The climbers endured -32 F temperatures, winds of 80 MPH, and relentless snow. On day five, a helicopter managed to drop a rescuer off on the side of the mountain. Heroically, the person scrambled to get to the climbers. He put a harness on Jamie. The helicopter came back around with a 90-meter line and plucked Jamie from the mountaintop. Tragically, Jamie’s mate didn’t make it through the fifth night. He died on the summit.

Several days later, Jamie found himself in a hospital bed, dealing with the loss of his friend and recovering from having both of his hands and feet amputated.

When Jamie finished his story, you could have heard a pin drop.

I swallowed hard knowing that I was next to talk. Let’s be real. Jamie Andrew is a tough act to follow.

Fortunately, Jamie didn’t finish his presentation. He continued by connecting his experience to what the leaders in the room faced in their roles. He challenged and inspired them. Along the way, he showed me how to become an amazing act to follow.

How you can be a tough, yet amazing leader to follow.

Here are three things that you can do to set your successor up for success:

1: Draw wisdom from your experience and share it

There’s no doubt that Jamie survived an unbelievable situation. Merely telling his story would have engaged others, but the wisdom from the experience is what was of most value. He was able to share lessons of value to an audience of people who face challenges of their own and will likely never climb in the Alps.

Key leadership lesson: You likely have a few, “here’s how we did things back in the day,” stories. You may be well practiced at telling them and people might find them entertaining, but they are of little use if you can’t help people to connect the experience you have with the challenges they face today. You must make your experiences relevant.

2: Choose the tough road and achieve big things over time

Jamie shared that at one point in his recovery, he set his mind to ‘brushing his own teeth’. Up until that point, caretakers had to do it for him. His decision meant that no matter how long it took, he would brush his own teeth. Eventually, he did it. In subsequent days and weeks, he tackled feeding himself and drinking a cup of water on his own. Over time those tough decisions led him to standing on prosthetic legs, hiking the hills around his home, traveling the world (on his own) to tell his story, and eventually climbing the Matterhorn.

In sharing his goal setting and accomplishing process, Jamie modeled how to achieve big things he also challenged the audience to dream of their own professional and personal goals.

Key leadership lesson: Just like Jamie, we face choices everyday. Those who choose the tough paths and see them to fruition benefit more from the journey than the destination. Setting and accomplishing small daily goals leads to achieving big things over time. It’s through this example that you show others how to win.

3. Surround yourself with great people and add to their value

Starting with the rescuer, who attached the harness to Jamie on the mountaintop, to the helicopter pilot, who expertly snatched Jamie from his icy perch, to the doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and other medical professionals, Jamie was surrounded by great people. However, as he explained, the true value of the medical team came to fruition when Jamie started to lead in his own recovery by sharing them what he needed, helping to orchestrate their efforts, and letting them know how much they were appreciated.

Key leadership lesson: It’s important to surround yourself with great people who are highly competent in their roles, but individual performers can only go so far on their own. They need someone to coordinate their efforts, challenge them to improve, and congratulate them when they win!

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