All Articles Education Educational Leadership On the roller coaster of life . . . 

On the roller coaster of life . . . 

Fred Ende offers leadership lessons from riding roller coasters at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania.

6 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

Businessmen on Rollercoaster for article on leadership

(Zia Soleil/Getty Images)

I realized as I sat down to write this piece that while I might not make a great travel writer, so much of my writing this year has been the result of travel. Maybe being out of our normal spaces allows us to be more reflective. Or maybe our human nature looks for connections, and when we have new experiences away from our normal routine, our brains are always trying to connect the new to what is already established. Which is exactly what reflection is all about.

Last month our entire family traveled for a soccer tournament for my oldest daughter being held in Hershey, Pa. There was a lot to learn from the tournament experience itself, but for this piece I’m going to focus on what I took away from a day in Hershey Park. While you might initially think otherwise for a park built around the famous chocolate brand, this park is a roller coaster-lover’s paradise. I’m a huge fan, and the park did not disappoint. Here are four connections I formed between roller coasters at the park and important leadership ideals.

… if you go too fast, you’ll miss something

One of the first roller coasters I rode that day was called Sky Rush. It starts with a steep incline at speed and a significant drop, topping out at about 75 mph. The ride was so fast that it was hard for me to see all the elements of the track as I was riding. I watched a point-of-view video of the ride afterward, and I was surprised at how much I had missed, because the entire ride felt like it was at speed. 

While leadership can be a bit of a thrill ride too, we have to do our best to slow the work down enough for us to be able to pay attention to everything that is going on around us. It doesn’t mean that we can’t welcome parts of our work that are speedy or recognize that sometimes we don’t have the luxury of slowing things down. That said, as I’ve written before, we can’t wear busyness as a badge of honor. If we are so busy that we can’t give our work the time it needs to truly develop, then we will likely end up going too fast to be confident in our results. Speed can’t take the place of effectiveness in our work.

… you have to take the ups with the downs

At the end of the day, I rode Candymonium, which is a coaster with two large inclines and drops to start the ride. It provides a great example of a little bit of zero gravity on that second incline as you float a bit out of your seat coming out of the first drop. 

Leadership is a bit like that too. There are always significant ups and downs, and sometimes it can feel like we are floating out there, unsure where we will end up next. The important idea to remember is that while the ups and downs as they happen can be scary, the elements after allow for significant learning (regardless of the situation). Sometimes we simply need to zoom out to see that the ups and downs are just part of a larger cycle and, like the Candymonium coaster, can sometimes leave us feeling better about everything than when we examined each of the elements separately.

… you can teach an old dog new tricks

My favorite coaster in the park was Wildcat’s Revenge, a hybrid coaster built on an older wooden foundation with new steel tracks. This allows the roller coaster to utilize a valuable initial design and, with the steel track, build in additional thrill elements. This is a perfect integration in my humble opinion as a coaster lover. It makes use of the historical nature of earlier track design that is both functional and fun, and it evolves the entire experience with the addition of the steel tracks, which allow the cart to do things impossible on a wooden track. 

The ride was fantastic, and it got me thinking that, in the proper conditions, we can take the best of what has been long-standing practice and incorporate new strategies into what we do as leaders. In order for this to happen, of course, we have to be willing to recognize the value of what was as well as the necessity for change. And we have to realize that change doesn’t mean we don’t see the rationale for what came before, but it does recognize that, even with that rationale, things still have to change for us to keep getting better. Our practice as leaders, just like the design of roller coasters, can change for the better without throwing away what works and what we’ve enjoyed in the past.

… relationships are everything

My older daughter spent most of the day at the park riding coasters with a bunch of her friends from her soccer team. At one point, I was waiting in the queue for one of the roller coasters, called Great Bear (it’s an inverted coaster with a bunch of great loops), and I happened to be waiting at the same time as my older daughter. Now, teenagers are interesting creatures. They sometimes want to acknowledge the existence of their parents and at other times would prefer not to, and I’ve learned to go with the flow as best as I can. She called out to me to ask if I wanted to join her and a few of her friends in their row on the coaster and, not wanting to miss an opportunity to continue to build our relationship, I did. 

It was a great coaster, and I had a lot of fun laughing with her and her friends on the ride and then looking at our pictures afterward. This served as a good reminder that in life, whether professional or personal, relationships have to be at the heart of all we do. Even small moments in time can have a lasting impact or help in building a great memory; when we lead for relationships, we are leading for people first.

I had some other fun ride experiences at the park, and the tournament itself provided a lot of great learning (for me, my daughter and her soccer team). I appreciated the opportunity to see the world from a different perspective, if only for a few days. Reflection, at its core, is about analyzing connections to help us become better at what we do. On the roller coaster of life, it’s great to live in the moment and take the time to consider those past moments afterward.


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