Leading with Nature

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Sky-Walking: A Metaphor for Organizational Learning

Between the railroad ties of the Kinzua Sky Walk in Northwestern Pennsylvania, one can view the valley floor 301 feet below — offering a chance to confront fear. Image: Nicholas A. Tonelli

Author: Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD

 “Not even my foot could fit in that gap,” I told myself, “so how could I possibly fall through?” I was stepping from railroad tie to railroad tie on the renovated half-bridge that soars 301 feet above the Kinzua Valley in Northwestern Pennsylvania (see photo). Yet my legs would not believe these platitudes, and continued to wobble and ache.

My partner, Anthony Hyatt, and I were returning home to the Washington, DC area from Lake Couchiching, north of Toronto, where we presented a workshop at the Mindcamp creativity conference. We planned a relaxed journey so we could explore local sights around the Allegheny National Forest: the quirky Zippo museum, the Timberdoodle Flats birding trail, and the Kinzua Sky Walk. Little did I know I would come away from Kinzua with an experience and metaphor about how people learn in organizations.

“Feel the fear and do it anyway,” I thought, as I walked on the ties until I could no longer stand the aching and anxiety, and moved to the walkway. Back on the ties, back on the walkway. On and off, on and off. (Sounds like a train!) Anthony and I reached the end of the Sky Walk and took in the sweeping valley where in 2003 a tornado dashed this miraculously long and high railroad bridge to the valley floor, leaving scattered piles of steel wreckage which are still there. Or were they crumpled dinosaur skeletons?

After we enjoyed the view, joked about bungee jumping, and were photographed by some amiable men in Harley-Davidson jackets, we returned on the railroad tracks to the park entrance. Anthony began to walk on the rusty metal rails, and I followed suit. Suddenly I could walk over the same space without fear. The continuity of the rail across the same space, while requiring me to balance, gave me confidence in my safety. I walked down the rail feeling free and light.

Now the test: I walked again on the ties. And voilà! No fear, no aching, no anxiety. Gone!

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