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Is this the Most Unlikely Leader Ever?

Despite the potential threat of the horrific death of their friend, and possible manslaughter charges, four unlikely accomplices worked tirelessly together to help create what is arguably the 20th century’s most artistic and dangerous endeavour ever. In the process, the main leader demonstrated remarkable skill as a leader and CEO of the group.

On an early misty, summer morning in New York on August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit accomplished the incredible daredevil feat of walking across a tightrope, 450 metres above the ground, connected between the two towers of the World Trade Centre.

Yet, it’s not just the tightrope achievement that was impressive. Petit’s innate effective leadership ability to rally a small team of supporters to help him plan and execute his strategy, over a period of six years, is just as remarkable.

An Inspired Vision

In 1968, at the young age of 17, Philippe Petit sat in a dentist’s office in his hometown in France. Upon opening a newspaper, he literally froze when he read about two towers purported to be the highest in the world, which were going to be built in America. Impulsively, he drew a tightrope between the two buildings and knew he had to walk across it.

Immediately, he started to plan. First, he had to actually learn how to walk on a tightrope. Second, he needed to recruit the right people to help him design and execute the strategy.

This involved having the right leadership skills to unite the team when insurmountable challenges arose by communicating a compelling message to energise and align. As well as, secure funding, to ensure the work could be achieved without unnecessary financial hardship. Luckily for Petit, his passion and focus on his dream ensured that he was successful due to his exceptional leadership qualities.

Recruiting the Right Team

Effortlessly, he quickly managed to recruit three friends to help him.

Great communicators of our times have been adept at customising their message, so that it taps into the very essence of what drives people. Using impressive aptitude, Petit was able to figure out each recruit’s main driver to be involved. A lot of leaders make the mistake of enlisting others based on their own personal drivers and fail to see the other person’s perspective and needs. This often means recruiting the wrong people or being uninspiring to the right ones.

According to social psychology, there are around five main fundamental needs that drive all of our human behaviours. These are:

  • Activating experiences of happiness,
  • Enhancing people’s ability to connect with each other,
  • Helping people explore new experiences,
  • Evoking pride, and
  • Impacting society by improving people’s lives.

Petit himself, was driven by both the experience of happiness and impacting society or as he said in the documentary, Man on Wire,  “conquering the world as a poet, conquering beautiful stages.”

Yet, he knew that wouldn’t work to recruit his crew. His first recruit was Annie, who he pursued tirelessly to be his girlfriend. His approach was to focus on her need for happiness and limitless possibility. While the second recruit was Jean, who joined because of his deep need for inspiring exploration. During “conscription,” Petit was authentic and honest at all times and told Jean upfront that it was illegal. Luckily, Jean was excited by that prospect and remarked, “It was against the law, but not mean or wicked.”

Petit also enlisted his old school friend, Jean-Louis, because he knew he would be fanatical about details. “He’s not driven by the impetuous feeling of dancing between the towers, he’s driven by helping his friend from not dying and making the project a success,” remarked Petit in the documentary.

Building the Plan

Petit knew he needed to conquer smaller landmarks first, so that he would be completely prepared for walking on the tightrope between the Twin Towers. One of the distinguishing features of a true leader is to constantly pilot test their strategy under controlled conditions, in order to be aware of future issues and so, they can then iron them out in advance. Just like Steve Jobs set up a mock retail outlet within Apple to tweak the design before launching it into an actual shop.

For Petit, his first practice run was walking a tightrope across Notre Dame.

After conquering Notre Dame, Petit flew to Australia to tightrope walk the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He managed to recruit an Australian called Mark, to help him break into a pylon during the night to set up his equipment.

Meanwhile, back in America, the Twin Towers were closed to being finished. Hastily, Petit flew back to Paris to discover they were near completion.

Petit then flew to the USA and managed to get onto the top floor of the Twin Towers. Up high in the sky, he realised the immense challenge of trying to lug one tonne of equipment secretly onto two heavily guarded towers. But even trickier, was how to tie the wire from one tower to the other. Rather than be defeated by the sheer challenge of his vision, he excitedly flew back to France.

“I thought, this is impossible! Let’s start working. It was out of human scale, but something pulled me to touching it.”

Intuitively, Petit knew that to help him focus on his vision, he needed a visual representation to remind him on a daily basis. While he was in America, he mailed each of his accomplices a postcard of the Twin Towers with his hand drawn high wire. It worked beautifully as a tool to enlist others to bring his vision to life.

Masterminding the Solution

In a pretty French meadow, Petit set up boot camp, to prepare for his highwire stunt, cheekily placing a sign on a country lane that read “World Trade Center Association.”

Mark, the Australian, eagerly flew to Paris to help strategise and plan. By this time, there were around four people helping Petit and they rigged up a high wire that corresponded to the distance between both Towers. Petit eagerly practised and performed on the wire

Yet, no one knew how they were going to conquer the Twin Towers. However, the unknown energised everyone to work together. They brainstormed for days trying to work out how to secure the wire across the chasm. After testing a variety of options, they ingeniously discovered that using a bow and arrow was the best solution.

Yet, the next challenge was how to ensure that Petit could safely walk across, despite high winds and two buildings that swayed. This obstacle was overcome by all the assistants pulling and making the “cable dance,” so that he got used to the wire moving.New York City Skyline - World Trade Center

Realising he needed more information on how to “break in” to the Towers, Petit flew back to America and recruited another local assistant called Jim. Together, they hired a helicopter, to fly over the Towers and take photos. At the same time, Petit used the opportunity to trick his mind and reduce his fear, believing if he could see the Twin Towers even higher, it would appear less daunting.

Despite being undisturbed by insurmountable challenges, Petit always knew the deadly game he was manifesting. Yet, the prospect of dying propelled him to ensure his plan was watertight. He remarked, “Framed by death, you have to take it seriously. A half-millimetre mistake and you lose your life.”

Encouraging Team Debate

When Petit returned to France, Jean-Louis was concerned that there were not enough elements to make the plan work. Much debate ensued. Despite the arguments being tense, Petit always knew that Jean-Louis had his best interests at heart. He accepted the feedback and adjusted his plan. Time and time again, research has found that leaders, who are open to feedback and criticism from their team, ensure they make reality-based decisions. Of course, Petit was in no position to be making decisions based on hopes.

Petit returned to the US to spy on the Towers. Spending all day and night drawing copious plans, taking measurements and writing notes in multiple exercise books of all his observations. While spying, he didn’t see a nail on a plank and it pierced through his foot. Petit was disappointed that he was incapacitated for three days. Yet, it ended up being his lucky break. When he returned to the Towers on crutches, guards helped him to open doors. From then on, no one asked for ID, providing him with limitless access to the building.

Even after his foot healed, he still continued to use his crutches to procure admission. On one such trip, he discovered the extreme winds at the top of the Tower. Suddenly, it dawned on Jim, the American assistant, the real risks to the project. Jim feared he would rig the equipment and Petit could die. He decided he didn’t want that responsibility and backed out.

But to Petit, it was a “what if” moment. A great opportunity to design a backup plan and improve on what they were doing. Again, he showed real leadership skill in being able to face a challenge and look for a solution, rather than give up or just plain ignore the deadly issue.

When Petit returned to France, the plan was restructured, while the disputes between Jean-Louise and Petit escalated. The issue was mainly about entering the Trade Centre without being caught. They brainstormed lots of scenarios and solutions. But Jean-Louis felt they were unrealistic and that it “seemed almost impossible that they could go in undetected.”

Just like in business, highly left-brained, technical people often have difficulty with plans that lack minute details. He clashed with Petit’s visionary and impetuous goal. Yet, Petit did not let the arguments get personal and respected his viewpoint.

At this time, Mark, the Australian dropped out of the scheme saying, “I never doubted his ability on a wire, it was the things that couldn’t be controlled. America is a litigious society and I didn’t want to be sued for his death.”

Disguised as a Hack

Petit returned to America disguised as a French reporter, pretending to write a story about the World Trade Centre while being accompanied by two photographers. They used this opportunity to ask questions about how construction workers worked during poor weather conditions. They also took photos of pylons and anchor points, while taking photos of workers.

It was then that Petit realised that the two towers were not corners facing corners, as they had presumed. This changed how they could rig the wire, so the solution was to do asymmetrical rigging of the line by attaching it to the strongest beam that wasn’t exactly on the end point. An additional two asymmetrical lines were needed to secure it.

In nature, there are no straight lines. Rivers undulate and flow, following the contours of the landscape to the sea. In business, CEOs have to learn to navigate the direction of the marketplace that at times seems at odds with the company’s vision. What Petit knew, and what all great CEOs know, is that you need to keep your eye fixed on the goal and adjust things as you go.

Upon returning to France, Jean-Louis was still agitated and concerned about the plan. He accused Petit of his “non preparations.”

Acknowledging that the plan was very ambitious, Petit decided to delay the tightrope and keep planning. He watched countless detective movies hoping to get some ideas on how to “break into” the towers. He continually travelled back and forth to the US for further observations.

Then, he got a lucky break. On one trip, he was spotted by an American, called Barry, who had seen Petit juggling in the streets of Paris. Knowing that it didn’t look right that Petit was at the World Trade Centre, he asked Petit why he was there. Petit instantly confessed. Barry commented in the documentary, “he draws you into his world, and I was not adverse to doing things that weren’t totally legal.” Barry was the missing piece to the puzzle and he helped Petit by providing a fake ID, while acting as the person that could accept the equipment delivery.

At the same time, Petit found another two American guys to help. They were all up for an adventure. Petit believed them to be “smart and confident and aware of their limits – the ideal accomplice.”

As one US accomplice in the documentary said, “He sold it like a timeshare. I thought he was a nut or a conman, but he seemed harmless.”

Yet, when they saw him on the cable, all faith and trust in him was restored. “He had an ageless mask of concentration, he became like a sphinx. I’d never seen concentration like that. He did it beautifully and calmly. With his eyes closed. Everything he told me was true.”

Petit was a natural, authentic leader that gently coaxed people to join him, but only those he believed matched his values and understood his vision. By being honest at all times, his accomplices held him in high regard and trusted him. Trust is essential to leadership and teamwork. Petit’s leadership style successfully engendered trust that matched his unusual personality.

The Night Before

Annie, Jean-Louis and Jean arrived in New York to help Petit with his big dream.

Everything was meticulously planned. But there was one issue. The French assistants didn’t trust their American counterparts. Conversely, the Americans didn’t trust the French.

Nevertheless, the plan went ahead with everyone travelling in a truck thick with fear and feelings of mistrust.

All of the accomplices were disguised as either businessmen in suits or construction workers. The only hiccup was the American photographer who upon getting to the top floor of the World Trade Centre felt like he couldn’t do it and literally fled. He later remarked, “I had unbridled glee and I was happy to run down 110 flights of stairs.” Meanwhile, the French team were relieved he had left, as he was deeply mistrusted, and the plan continued without him.

Throughout the night the team had to rig all of the wires across the Towers, due to a technical error. Despite the hard work involved, everyone knew to keep working without complaint. But the accomplices were all scared for Petit who had no sleep and was about to perform the most death-defying feat ever.

Yet, he didn’t let that stop him. He remarked:

 “I had to make a decision of shifting my weight on one foot anchored on the building to the foot anchored on the wire. This is probably the end of my life to step on that wire. On the other hand, it was something I could not resist and I didn’t make any fight to resist what called me onto that wire. And death is very close.”

Being a leader means having one foot in the present and another foot in the future. For Petit, putting one foot into the future was terrifying, but all his preparations had ensured he was ready.

Annie, Jim and others patiently waited on the street to watch the performance. After a nerve-wracking wait, he appeared.

In the documentary, Annie cried “I saw Philippe up there, it was extraordinary, it was so, so beautiful. It was like he was walking on a cloud. And there were such amazing moments where he lay down. We were thrilled by this image of Petit lying down, up above. And another very powerful moment was when he, when he knelt down and saluted.”

While Jim said, “Beyond anything you could ever imagine, mind boggling. The awe of the event and the overwhelming largeness, the scale of the situation took my mind to a place where I wasn’t concerned about him. It was magical, profound.”

Arrested Walk

Petit managed to walk the wire eight times, spending 45 minutes suspended in midair. On each end, policemen were literally trying to grab him, even threatening to nab him with a helicopter. To his credit, Petit loved every minute of his walk and cheekily provoked the policemen.

On the News, one of the policemen remarked “I personally figured I was watching something that no one would else ever see again in the world. I thought it was once in a lifetime.”

After leaving the wire, everyone was arrested and Petit was sent off for a psychiatric examination. However, all charges were dropped in exchange for a free performance (except that the two French accomplishes were sent out of America).

Sadly, the friendship was irredeemably broken between Petit and his childhood friend, Jean-Louis. Likewise, he and Annie broke up soon after.

Unfortunately, Petit’s leadership style centred around his own need for attention and he had no plans in place to take his accomplices along with him.  A truly great leader takes people with them and helps others reach their own goals.  It is not surprising that most of the friendships fell apart with both Annie and Jean-Louise feeling used and unwanted.

The Gift of Human Ability

Despite the end of the friendship for the group, everyone was touched in a profound way. Their lives were never to be the same again. Petit’s stunt enabled his collaborators to expand their minds and glimpse unlimited human potential.

So too were those on the street who watched. One woman remarked to Petit: “You gave us such a gift. It was so beautiful. A breath of fresh air.”

Even the Twin Towers benefited from the performance, which at the time was having trouble selling rental space. The performance gave them unprecedented free marketing and public relations globally.

Like all great change agents, Petit was judged to be clinically mad, but slowly, over time people realisedPetit’s extraordinary gift to humanity. Yet, he never doubted his ability or dream:

“Life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion. To refuse to repeat yourself, follow rules and see each day as a challenge. Then, you live every day on the tightrope.”

A Remarkable Leadership Style

One peak to another

Being a CEO or leader of a company means being fearless. It involves leading your organisation through peaks and troughs. Oftentimes, you need to convince your workforce to change by leaping from one peak to another or risk falling into an abyss.

Petit was a visionary leader who was so completely focused and aligned with his vision that he could not even resist its pull. He was able to safely navigate his team (and himself) through the endless trials and tribulations, by vividly communicating a compelling vision to align. Despite challenges and the momentous task of planning and bringing different types of people together, Petit achieved what was thought to be impossible. Giving hope to millions of people of what can be conquered in life, if one puts their heart and soul behind their dreams without ever questioning how it can be done.

Every great CEO, or entrepreneur, is driven to do something great. Whether it’s producing the latest must have a product or service, their creation is underpinned by their burning desire to change the world for the better.

Petit was no different. His gift to the world was to experience the untapped potential and power that can be expressed through a human being. While at the same time, empower a small group of people to achieve the impossible. And that is what a great leader does; encourage others to do their best work, to be part of something bigger than themselves, despite enormous challenges and setbacks.

However, it’s also important that the leader helps team members reach their own personal goals in pursuit of the bigger company goal.  Arguably, it was difficult for Petit to achieve this, but was the most noticeable flaw in his leadership style.