Management Classic: Controlling The Wind

A hang gliding anecdote from Jim Blaine, CEO of State Employees Credit Union, offers insight into what it takes for a credit union to truly take off.

Ever been told to go fly a kite? Next time it happens, take em up on it. You’ll be glad you did. No, not that regular dime store kite-and-string business. This kind of kite flying is called hang gliding. It’s your chance to soar. Just you and your high-deductible health coverage against the wind. And, remarkably, in addition to the thrill hang gliding provides, you also will gain one of the truest insights on leadership imaginable.

I discovered this last year on Jockey’s Ridge in Kitty Hawk, NC. If Kitty Hawk sounds familiar, that’s where Wilbur and Orville Wright’s new idea first took off in 1903. Jockey’s Ridge is actually a wave of tall sand dunes the largest on the East Coast. Steep inclines, brisk winds, and soft landing spots make for an ideal hang gliding site. After all, Wilbur and Orville, who were from Ohio, weren’t in Kitty Hawk by accident. They’d scoped out conditions pretty thoroughly. Faulty parts, poor visibility, and temperamental weather, however, repeatedly delayed the Wrights. So, you see, flight delays were invented prior to the airplane. Even the first airline passenger had to wait; it’s part of our American (and United) heritage.

My little group of sky pilots was a sight to behold. In the crew were several of my young’uns and their friends. We marched out into the wind and onto the dune. After assembling the Dacron fabric over the ultra light metal frames, we sat down to await our instructor. It was hot and getting hotter, but the breeze off the ocean was trying its best to provide some relief. From the dune you could see a fleet of cumulonimbi patrolling the horizon while the occasional brown pelican plucked lunch from between the whitecaps. The bright-white sand was smooth and soft. Interesting how life will so often come up and kiss you unexpectedly, if you’ll let it.

The gliders were little more than oversized kites. They whipped back and forth like spirited horses ready to race. Holding the rope together tight and close, you could feel the power of the wind, that invisible force, the lift, the potential. You tried to keep the kite face low, flat, away from the manic wind. But it didn’t work, at least not for long.

As fortune sometimes sees fit, the instructor was Australian ‘full blooded! Simple, mates, he said. Hook yourself up onto the frame like a sack of potatoes; grab the crossbar; run down the slope as fast as you can; and when you’re just about to wet your pants let go! When in the air, to steer, wiggle your rump in the direction you wish to go.

He then proceeded to demo his steering ability once or twice.

Okay, any questions? he continued. Thought not. Have a great flight!

Off he plunged toward the next group. That was it. We were now completely trained.

We bucked up our courage; hung our potatoes on the frame; grabbed the crossbar; and spent the next 45 minutes running down the dune and crashing into the sand. Back up, down again, crash. Back up, down again, crash. Something clearly wasn’t Wright. We were huddled in discouraged exhaustion when the frenetic Aussie bounced back up before us.

Well mates, he said. Been watchin ya’ll stick your [won’t repeat the phrase he used] in the sand. Havin fun are you? Well listen up carefully this time and perhaps you’ll get it right okay?

Okay, we said.

Simple, mates, he said again. Hook yourself up onto the frame like a sack of potatoes; grab the crossbar; run down the slope as fast as you can; and when you’re just about to wet your pants let go! Got it?

And off he charged. Ten tries and 45 minutes later we still had our [that phrase] in the sand.

Nobody looked up when he came back. He didn’t have many friends in the group at that point.

Mates, you’re making just one mistake. Only one, but it’s the one mistake all first-time flyers make. You have the skills, you have the equipment, you have the courage. But you don’t believe you can fly.

Looking at me he asked: You hook up, you charge down the hill and just when you feel the power of the wind under your kite what are you doing?

I told him when I felt the force the power of the wind, the adrenaline rising I grabbed the bar ready to take off.

That’s right mate, he replied. And grabbin the bar tightly, the natural instinct, steers the nose of the kite directly into the ground. Do you really think you can control the wind? If you ever intend to fly, you have to learn to let go. And, then you’ll soar!

He was, as we soon found out, right. We flew without trouble the rest of the afternoon.

Certainly, as a credit union manager, you have hired the skills, provided the training, purchased the equipment, defined the vision, and created the conditions for your credit union to thrive. So, as you’re running down that hill hanging on for dear life, don’t forget Let go!

You, too, will soar!

March 14, 2012

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