Fear of Heights (Can You Spell “Acrophobia?”)


“Come to the edge of the cliff,” he said.

“We are afraid,” they said.

“Come to the edge of the cliff,” he said.

“We are afraid,” they said.

“Come to the edge of the cliff,” he said.

They came.  He pushed.  They flew.

— Guillaume Apollinaire

Full Admission: I’m a Big “Chicken”

I can’t imagine what it would be like for me to be sitting where the guy in the picture is sitting.  I remember being terrified of heights when I was a kid (and honestly, still get a little “queezy” when I’m in positions I know to be perfectly safe yet give the appearance of being dangerous).  Climbing trees, going up on the roof of our row home in Lancaster, climbing rocks at Buchanan Park, and even occasionally going to the top of the stadium at F&M College and walking across the top wall always gave me that feeling in the pit of my stomach and I would start to slip into a mild panic that wouldn’t subside until I was on solid ground.

I have never ridden a roller coaster or gone on any adrenaline-rushing rides at amusement parks because, as I’ve freely admitted to my sons, “I’m a big chicken.”  Besides, my adrenaline is in no need of a rush.

For several years, I worked during the summers for a start-up commercial painting company that didn’t have much equipment and what it did have wouldn’t come close to today’s OSHA Standards.  We once painted a building with a 46-foot tower and only had a 40 foot ladder.  The solution?  Let Geoff (the tallest guy on the crew at 6’4”) stand on the top rung of the ladder and stretch up to paint the last parts of it.  I still can feel the anxiety I experienced 40 years later (and to be honest, it wasn’t a very good paint job).

But after a while, I routinely worked on ladders and scaffolding with little thought (except the age-old advice – “Never step back and admire your work.”).  I had to pay attention to the potential danger, use all of my body (including “holding on” with my legs and feet), and remind myself where I was and what I needed to pay attention to at all times.

Then there was flying.  I was never on a commercial airplane flight until I started working for an international corporation at age 34.  Five weeks into my employment, my boss informed me that I would be going to England for an international trade show and that I would be taking a flight from New York to London in a week.  How tough would that be?  I called my uncle for advice and he told me to expect about a six-hour flight (I could just keep my eyes shut for that long) and that it would be mostly over the Atlantic Ocean!!! I made it but must admit I had to distract myself with books, music, and food.

By the end of my career at that company, I was traveling 250,000 miles/year and developed a “Zen-like” approach to flying.  Enter the plane and don’t worry about anything until you disembark.


“Millions of Americans suffer from acrophobia, but it’s very treatable.”

According to PSYCOM, there are action steps to treat acrophobia:

  1. Learn all you can
  2. Relax, using techniques like meditation and deep breathing
  3. Get support from professionals
  4. Remember you’re not alone


Being a Learner

Anytime we do something new, we have to declare ourselves a “beginner.”  That means that we admit to what we “don’t know” and look for help to see us what we “don’t know we don’t know” (called “cognitive blindness”).  If we try something new and expect to be accomplished at it right from the start, we’ll be disappointed, frustrated, and possible put ourselves and others in harm’s way.

My younger son was one of the kids who could do anything.  Everything seemed to come to him easily – gifted athlete, superior student, excelled at everything he tried.  I would often challenge him at the start of the school year with “last year was pretty easy, but this is the year things will get tough.”  He stopped listening to me after fourth grade, knowing that his dad didn’t know what he was talking about.

Until he decided he wanted to play the trombone that year.  I saved for several months and bought him a used trombone from one of my fellow musicians and gave it to him.  He excitedly took it to his room, where he put it together, pulled out his lesson book, and started to make noise with it.  It sounded horrible (but isn’t that the way every musician starts?).  This noise went on for about 30 minutes – then suddenly, quiet.

I went up to his bedroom, opened the door, and saw him sobbing uncontrollably.

“What’s the matter, buddy?” I asked.

“I’ve been trying this for 30 minutes and I can’t play it yet!” he cried.


What “Cliffs” are You Facing?

How many of our leaders are stepping into the uncharted territory of leading in a volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world with the idea that we have to “know the right answer” and the “right thing to do?”  Worse, how many are actively avoiding stepping into VUCA and learning new ways to navigate it?

Who’s beckoning you to some new cliffs?  Your customers, your competitors, your employees?  Or maybe it’s that small voice within you that always wakes you up in the middle of the question with that one unanswerable question that, if you had the answer, would make all the difference?

What are you afraid of?  Fear is an emotion that’s telling us we could lose something important to us.  What is it that you’re afraid you could lose?  What if you started thinking about what you could gain?  What if you became a learner and sought help from others?

What practices are you engaged in to intentionally take care of yourself?  How are you relaxing? Meditation?  Breathing practices?

Who’s in your network of support and when’s the last time you asked for help?  (I know; asking for help just might be a cliff you don’t want to go near.  But leaders can’t have all the answers, especially if they’re beginners.

Who’s pushing you and challenging you to get out of your comfortable “orbit” of life?  And what happens if you find out you can fly?


Meeting (extra)Ordinary Leaders ™

Group Photo

October 29, 2019, we held our inaugural “Meeting (extra)Ordinary Leaders” Conference at the Ware Center in Lancaster, PA.  Actor Terri Mastrobuono began the day with a reading entitled, “Lost in a Maze,” from Charles Eisenstein’s book, “Climate.”  She challenged us to come to the edge of the cliff that is the mindless routine of our lives, stop aimlessly wandering around, and find the way out – even if it’s uncomfortable.

I invited the attendees to become more conscious of their reason for attending by having them journal, the sharing with a partner, then having groups of four share.  People who were “introverts” who didn’t want to “share” seemed to accept the gentle nudge.  By the end of the day, the relationships were building and the conversations were flowing.


Six great speakers got a little more aggressive and challenged them to think of leadership differently – more like jazz improvisation than doing everything “the right way,”  to understand that emotions are core to effective leadership, that it’s imperative not to fall into the “busy-ness trap,” that; to be an effective leader, you must live the mission, vision and values of your organization and deliver results (both, not either/or), that the most powerful tool a leader has is love, and that culture matters – a lot (but doesn’t have to be sliding boards in the lobby or sleep pods in the office).  Each speaker took the audience to the edge of the cliff, pushed and something incredible happened.  They started to fly.


Lisa Kollisch and Curtis Watkins led an “open space” session that we called the “Marketplace of Ideas” where attendees defined the topics they wanted to talk about, self-selected where they wanted to go, and held incredible conversations around the topics.  12 groups engaged in an hour-long conversation about a variety of topics and the engagement and energy was palpable. The developing sense of community was the result of people being risk-takers and learning how to fly.


I’m incredibly indebted to speakers Matt Stem, Curtis Watkins, Geraldine Vetterhoeffer, Tony Chivinski, Dr. April Hershey, and Jim Carchidi; event planner Andrea Caldwell assisted by Katie Wood of Practical Productions; our sponsors; and the attendees who had the courage to come to the edge of the cliff.  You might see them flying around your organization.

What about you?  What’s the cliff standing in front of you?  And what will you do?

Thanks to Jeremy Hess for the fantastic photography.  More to come on that.

And watch for our YouTube Channel that videographer Matt Shenk is preparing.

© Geoff Davis 11/1/19

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