Sept 14th, 1860 Charles Blondin becomes the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope .. not once .. many times…each time a little harder.
In a sack….on stilts…on a bicycle …he even carried a stove and cooked an omelette in the middle.
A buzz went through the crowd…they all leaned forward as he pushed a wheelbarrow with a sack of potatoes across Niagara Falls.
When he got to the Canadian side of the falls they say the noise of the crowd cheering at the other side was louder than the roar of the falls.
He turned to the crowd and challenged them. Do you think I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?
“Yes, yes, you are by the greatest tightrope walker the world has ever known…you can do anything”
“Alright, who wants to get in the wheelbarrow?” Blondin gestured.
No one got in.
There’s a big difference between saying we believe in something and doing it.
There’s also a very big difference in being the person doing the asking and being the person responding. It’s easy to believe in our own competencies and over time forget that others haven’t walked this same path with us. Sometimes our expectations of others get muddied as we become crystal clear about our own ambitions.
If we’re not careful, this gap between our ambitions and our expectations of others can quickly become a gulf on which both sides feel isolated.
What can we do to prevent this?
Would the response from the crowd watching Charles Blondin that day have been different if there was a safety net? In my imaginary revisionist history, I’ll say yes. I would have hopped in that barrow (but would it have actually happened as there would have been no selfie posted on Facebook?)
Would others be willing to do what you ask of them if you gave them a safety net? Would they take on tasks and projects that a moment earlier seemed daunting? Would they be willing to walk the tightrope for you?
The simplest safety net we can give others is to say ‘I’ve got your back on this one.’
That’s it. The only thing you need to do is mean it and follow through on it.
If you challenge your people with time restraints, budget restraints, raising the bar on difficulty. If you look them squarely in the eye – and you can do this via email with your choice of words – and say this is on you now. Go hard. Should you fail then I’ve got you. We’ll work it through. I won’t hang you out to dry.
Think for a moment. Really. If this safety net was extended to you, how would you feel? Right now in your stomach, do you feel a rising sense of capability? I can feel it just by writing these words.
Having the courage to stand by your people is very powerful for those receiving your belief. You don’t need a leadership course to make a massive change in hearts and minds of your people. You just need to lead. That can be as simple as saying ‘I’ve got your back on this one.’