Lead Like You’re Snowboarding

March 21, 2023

by Stephen T. Messenger

Fort McCoy owns and operates one of only three ski hills in the Army’s inventory. One of my 2023 goals was to learn to snowboard, and this year, my kids and I bought season passes and hit the slopes.

By the end of the season, we were getting pretty good. My daughter and I were even jumping on the pipes, ramps, and obstacles along the course. But the most notable thing that struck me was the culture of snowboarding.

I skied 25 years ago and remember it being a solo sport. You’d get off the lift and ski to the bottom, only interacting with others on the ride back up. Not so on a snowboard.

Snowboarders have a unique culture all to themselves. What I found interesting is that I would love to replicate this culture in any other team I’m on, be it work, sports, or recreation.

Snowboard Leadership

There are three fundamentals to leading like a snowboarder: inclusivity, challenge, and celebration.

Everyone is Invited

Our snowboarding gang mainly consisted of kids eight to seventeen years old. Then there were the few college kids and next, a smattering of 20-somethings who were mainly snowboard instructors on the side. Sprinkle in one or two early 30-year-olds. Finally, it was me, by far the oldest in the group in the mid-40s.

At the top of the hill, the skiers all exited the lift and went straight down. The snowboarders all plopped on their backsides and talked first. There would be groups of 5-15 people, talking about the hill, the jumps, and the terrain.

It was interesting, no matter the age, gender, skill, or background, anyone could slide up on a board and join the conversation. No one was ever turned away. Everyone was welcome.

They would share stories and tips to improve everyone’s run. The snowboarders have a culture of wanting to hang out and talk on experiences for the good of the group with no fear of judgement. Everyone was invited—even the skiers.

Challenging Each Other Is the Norm

Peer pressure is a thing in snowboarding. Believe me, when my eight-year-old counterpart is catching big air off the jump, I’m internally challenged to do the same. But not in a bad way. I never would have gone off the pipe or the ramps without the more experienced riders encouraging me on.

The top of the hill is a chance to motivate others to do more than they think is possible. By day four of snowboarding, I was trying to slide down a pipe and 180 the board—all epic fails by the way. But the constant challenge from others got me trying things I would never have attempted and led to exponential growth.

While peer pressure carries a bad connotation, challenging others is a good thing. It stretches everyone involved. And the snowboarders don’t just challenge; they coach you through the process.

Celebrate Wins and Losses

Did I mention my epic fails? Each time I busted on my tailbone, wrists, hips, or the occasional face, there was no judgement from the snowboard clique. In fact, a failed attempt over the pipe was met with just as much cheering as a success.

There were people shouting encouragement from the ski lift for almost any trick or fresh route, and always for the first-time snowboarders just learning. The community celebrated good effort towards getting better. 

Every time I was down hard, a snowboard would quickly stop near me to assess the damage. Sometimes multiple ones.

This community truly looks after each other, whether a member for a day or a season. They have this culture where everyone cares about the health and well-being of their riders and are not shy about helping, say, when a certain author skidded off the course and took a header into the powder.

Finally, this group knows how to have fun. They’re constantly inventing new tricks and challenges. They play games and build new ramps together. They take a jump and stop to turn around and watch the next five or ten jumps behind them. Then, they all fail spectacularly together and succeed in subsequent runs.

Lead Like You’re Snowboarding

All teams need these three characteristics of inclusivity, challenge, and celebration. The snowboard community has this down. It was refreshing to see it on the slopes and encouraging to take it back to the office.

I challenge you and myself to take this mentality into work and lead like you’re snowboarding.

3 thoughts on “Lead Like You’re Snowboarding

  1. Stephen, great article! As a diehard skier, I always had an adversarial relationship with snowboarders by considering their sitting in groups as an obstacle. It never occurred to me that they were actually fostering a great culture by stopping to enjoy each other’s company! Great perspective and one that will change not only my military leadership but also my courtesy on the mountain!


    1. Ryan, great to hear from you! You know, this year I’ve been on skis and snowboards. I weirdly related more to the people that wore the same snow gear on their feet. It’s interesting how fast you can connect to people based on similarities. And I agree, snowboard groups while on skis did seem to be in the way. Your comment reminded me that it always helps to snowboard a mile in someone else’s sport. Thanks, Ryan!


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