This selfie was taken at the moment of lift-off, on my first hot air balloon ride - an  exceptional trust-building exercise for leaders.

This selfie was taken at the moment of lift-off on my first hot air balloon ride. The adventure above San Diego County was an exceptional trust-building exercise for leaders.

Last week could have been the perfect winter week for me: facilitating a leadership retreat in southern California, walking Del Mar beach every morning, checking off one of my bucket list aspirations and Melinda joining me for a weekend in Laguna Beach. Maybe a Seven Fs clean sweep?

Bucket list or bust?

The centerpiece of the leadership retreat was a hot air balloon ride – floating six miles south along the Pacific coast over the two most expensive zip codes in San Diego County. It was a thrilling experience – a bucket list item for me.

Most of the 31 participants in the retreat accepted the invitation to fly! Others considered the opportunity too risky: either a fear of heights or an inability to suspend their basic human protection instincts. No judgement – respect is a centerpiece of good leadership.

Why do we extend trust?

Our pilot was a professional elementary school teacher.

Our pilot was a professional elementary school teacher.

The physics of hot air ballooning is simple: hot air rises, the wind blows in different directions at different altitudes, and the only way a balloon stops is friction with mother earth. Does that sound thrilling or frightening to you?

“There’s no bathroom on a hot air balloon!” the owner of the excursion company joked. That was his way of asking us, one more time, if we really wanted to fly in his beautiful balloon. So many things can go wrong. No one has a parachute. The captain of our balloon was a twenty-something third grade teacher during the day, and hot air balloon pilot at dusk. None of us could have landed the darn thing if something happened to our pilot.  And yet, we climbed aboard.

Preparation is important

The hot air burners sounded like a Nascar engine as they filled the balloon up to sailing temperature.

The hot air burners sounded like a Nascar engine as they filled the balloon up to sailing temperature.

The trust building process is deliberate and elaborate: we all watched as our balloons were meticulously unfolded on the ground. We inspected the cable connectors which connected our balloon to our basket. The woman next to me giggled hysterically as the balloons began to inflate – it was her stress response. Skeptical, science-minded leaders pelted the owner with questions:

How high will we fly? How much fuel do the burners burn? How much weight will the basket hold? How many hours has our pilot flown? Has anyone ever crashed?  How does this thing stop!!?? My palms were sweating, and I took 153 pictures – was that my stress response?

Individual risk / reward

Our one-hour flight traveled more than six miles south, floating slightly east and slightly west by rising and dropping to into competing air flows. Some of us were scared when we reached 3000 feet – I was freaked out the most when we flew over houses at less than 500 feet.  I could hear people talking on the ground, and see ESPN on an HDTV in one of the luxury homes.  The lower we went, the more my instincts told me to “jump.”  That was creepy.

Before, during and after we all agreed it was one of the most thrilling things we’d ever experienced. Thank you Jeff Augustin for providing a wonderful stretch experience!

Why did we trust?

Our group included three hot air balloons, floating over Rancho Santa Fe, California near dusk. Bucket list!

Our group included three hot air balloons, floating over Rancho Santa Fe, California near dusk. Bucket list!

Back on the ground, it was my job to debrief the whole experience: Why did we decide to trust the hot air balloon people? I asked.

Yes, they have an impeccable safety record.

Yes, they demonstrated excellence every step of the way.

But ultimately, we gave them our trust because they were experts. The were intensely focused on our safety and well-being.  And they earned our trust.

Another good lesson

Jeff Augustin asked the question: Did you know that we didn’t land in the field they intended as our landing pad? Most of us said “yes!” Did that diminish the experience in any way? “No!” we said.  Here’s the leadership lesson:

As leaders, we seldom deliver exactly what we aim to deliver. And yet, we succeed when we have a maniacal focus on caring for the people along the way, and push each other to create extraordinary experiences for our customers.

Good leaders learn to give people their trust when they are outside their comfort zone. And they understand extraordinary experiences that help us stretch and grow. Together.

Bonus: Enjoy this song: Up, Up and Away, by the Fifth Dimension, written and recorded in 1967. Would you like to fly in my beautiful balloon? We can float above the stars together you and I, for we can fly! Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon.

Is a hot air balloon ride on your bucket list?