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Felix Baumgartner's Leap of Faith a Lesson for Leaders Everywhere

October 16, 2012

When was the last time you took a leap of faith?

Felix Baumgartner recently did.

In case you weren't one of the 8 million-plus people watching the Austrian skydiver's stunt online, Baumgartner set the record for the highest skydive and fastest free-fall speed. Felix, I congratulate you on your historic leap into the record books. I can't, however, say I'd have wanted to be in your shoes—or pressure suit—on Oct. 14. But, hey, everyone has their limits when it comes to leaps of faith.

Floating 24 miles above sea level in a 55-story-high helium-filled balloon made of polyethylene film that's 10 times thinner than a plastic sandwich bag isn't exactly my idea of spacing out on a Sunday. Of course, neither is jumping out of said balloon and free falling faster than the speed of sound (his top speed was clocked at almost 834 mph) toward the ground. I've been on the American Eagle roller coaster at Six Flags Great America a few times, with a drop that hits 66 mph, and even that made me queasy.

While Baumgartner's you-couldn't-try-this-at-home-even-if-you-wanted-to feat (and we have no idea why you'd want to) might not seem like fodder for best practices in the workplace, it's actually a perfect metaphor.

What took place in Roswell, New Mexico, on that beautiful day took planning and teamwork. His team was led by Col. Joe Kittinger, who in 1960 did a similar daredevil jump although not as high but, you guessed it, backed by 1960 technology. His jump is not as well-known, but Kittinger's giant leap predated Neil Armstrong's "one giant leap for mankind" by nine years.

For Baumgartner to accomplish his record-breaking skydive, it took a team of people working together to accomplish an objective. It was a group that took a risk and tried something that had never been done before—not haphazardly mind you, but with careful preparation.

While I'm not advocating putting your life on the line as Baumgartner did, I am a supporter of going out of your comfort zone.

That could mean hiring a candidate with less experience but great qualifications, much like Yahoo did when it named a young but clearly talented Marissa Mayer as CEO vs. a seasoned veteran, or perhaps drawing up a policy that allows workers to telecommute.

It could also mean trying something that sounds nuts, much like what Bart Lorang, the CEO of FullContact, a Denver-based technology company, did. He instituted a policy where employees are given $7,500 for taking a vacation. They get the money for not doing any work and not checking in during their holidays. If they don't use their time off, they lose the cash. Even Lorang calls his idea "totally insane."

But is it?

I don't think so. What he did was bring great exposure to his company. It also gives FullContact a leg up on bringing in the best talent. When choosing between Company A and Company B, which offer similar salaries and benefits, my guess is most recruits are going to choose Company A if it's willing to give you $7,500 to take a vacation.

It's an out-of-this world perk.

Curiously, after his mission was completed, Baumgartner said, "The exit was perfect but then I started spinning slowly. I thought I'd just spin a few times and that would be that, but then I started to speed up. It was really brutal at times. ... It was really a lot harder than I thought it was going to be."

Easy? Since when has taking a leap of faith been easy? It's not, but if it's planned out correctly, a leap of faith could turn into a huge boon for your company—or maybe even your career.

James Tehrani is Workforce's copy desk chief. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.