I'm not one for arbitrarily attaching leadership lessons or metaphors to sports and athletics. For me, they are too often simplistic and don't take into consideration the differences in the complexity of both spheres. 

However, I put that to the side as I watched with gripped excitement the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo this weekend. If you haven't seen it, it's a masterclass in cinematography and storytelling and, yes, a few leadership lessons, as it chronicles the heroic/foolish attempt by Alex Honnold to scale El Capitan in Yosemite Park alone and with no ropes, safety nets, or parachutes. Here's what I took away from it.

1. Define your legacy.

Honnold had climbed El Cap numerous times aided and abetted by other climbers and--shock, horror--actual safety equipment. He had "free soloed" a number of other slightly less dangerous structures, but this was the one he wanted. He thought about it for eight years before embarking on a further two years of preparation to complete the roughly 3,000 ft. ascent. 

He knew this would be the legacy he would leave behind. Well aware that other, more skilled, more daring climbers would likely build on and then surpass his feats, this was his contribution to the sport.

When you reflect on your own leadership, what's the legacy that you want to leave behind? What impact do you want to have on your team, industry, or community?

2. Map out your ideal outcome.

There are around 50 routes up El Capitan of various levels of difficulty and length, from "The Secret Passage" to "Tangerine Trip" to "Freerider," the path that Honnold eventually chose.

With a route in mind to achieve his legacy, he then set about working out in excruciating detail each step and hand-hold he would need to take to get there. At one point in the documentary, we can hear him recanting each movement in an almost shamanic way, as he commits the route to memory.

As a leader, you have the ability to map your ideal outcome. From the high level "what does it look like if we achieve our vision?" down to "what does it mean for us to have a perfect run today?" When you map your ideal outcome, it takes the guesswork out of your execution and allows you to focus on taking the necessary steps to get there.

3. Engage in deep practice.

With his ideal outcome planned, Alex then took to climbing El Cap--over and over and over again. Not only did he complete full routes, but on the most challenging maneuvers, he would stop and practice repeatedly until he couldn't get them wrong. As one of the cameramen on the show, himself an experienced climber, said, it's like an Olympic athlete competing for a gold medal, "but if you don't win, you die."

Thankfully, for most leaders, making a mistake isn't quite as catastrophic. There are times, though, when deep practice of your leadership skills can result in true greatness. Rehearsing a speech to rally the troops after a down quarter, perhaps, or practicing to stay quiet until all your team has had a chance to air their viewpoint before you share yours. 

Too often, we view leadership as a "soft" skill. When we do that, we get "soft" leadership, instead, view it as something you can and should work on day in and day out, and you'll be sure to see an increase in your impact.

Published on: Mar 26, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.