In my presentation for companies, “Leadership Lessons from Mt. Everest”, I discuss the key attributes shared by climbers and leaders in the corporate world: preparation, trust, teamwork, commitment, judgement, and humor.
Each plays a role in making the push to the summit, or turning back – both are successes in my mind – because you live to try again.
These characteristics are critically important during times of stress or change for a business.
In my 30 years running businesses, I found many opportunities to apply my climbing lessons to business life.
Training for Everest is an all encompassing endeavor. It is not a task to be guessed at or winged. For some it takes years of physical training but equally important is training the mind. Putting on crampons at 28,000 feet in bone chilling cold temperatures or in high winds while wearing heavy gloves must be a muscle memory, not something you fumble through. This can be the difference between going on or going home if you get frostbite.
Similarly, managing chage in a large organization requires solid preparation. The logistics of the change is obviously crucial such as facilities, IT, and staff but equally critical is planning the human aspect of change recognizing that not everyone goes through change at the same pace. Some require more explanation, others can play a crucial role in leading the change.
I saw the snow bridge and thought it may be covering a crevasse and then just as that thought solidified, I fell 5 meters between the narrow, cold dark walls of a bottomless crack in the snow on Everest’s Western CWM at 20,000 feet. I gasped for air as the shock took my breath away. I held tightly onto the rope that was anchored on both ends by teammates I had met just three weeks earlier. Soon, Rob looked down on me from the hole in the snow where I punched through. Together, we pulled me to safety.
Why do climbers often trust their lives to total strangers yet in business it is common to look at one another with contempt and question motives? In business the hope is that everyone is working towards the same goal. The answers lies within the leadership of the organization and is there effective communication about the purpose of the unit, the reward system and also inside each employee. There will come a time in each person’s career that they need their co-worker and an opportunity will presents itself to provide aid. Be ready.
High winds are a fact of life on Everest. You go prepared but sometimes they hit when you are not ready. Lying in my tent at 23,000 feet high on the steep and icy Lhotse Face, I was ready to go to sleep when the winds picked up. I rolled over in my warm down sleeping bag. But soon the winds were causing the tent to move even with two full grown men inside. The snow piled up on the outside walls pushing the tent into itself. We took turns all night going out in the dangerous conditions to shovel the snow away. No formal schedule, just doing what needed to be done.
The term “pulling your weight” is a common theme in business. Whether it is a department or individual; it is mandatory that each contribute their share of work. The damaging time comes when an individual sits back, uninvolved, questioning everything. They isolate themselves and put the objective at risk. Why? It may come back to leadership, communications or an issue with that individual. Teamwork requires putting egos aside, showing courage and putting faith in the organizations. But above all it is about not letting your coworker down.
It was dark, cold and windy. My boots felt like they were in mud. I was hurting badly as my lungs cried out for more oxygen. I was on the summit push to the top of Mt. Everest, the top of the world. But now at 28,000 feet on the steep and narrow Southeast Ridge, every part of my body said turn back. But every part of my essence said push on. I had a purpose for climbing Mt. Everest, to tell the world that Alzheimer’s is a disease with no cure that killed my mom. It was time to double down on research, support for caregivers and families. That single thought kept me going.
Putting in the daily work can sometimes be daunting. It can be boring, unfulfilling and unrewarding. Then there are days when it is exciting and the end of day brings satisfaction. Finding the purpose in your work is key to success. Not everyday will stand out. On Everest you only climb 20 out of 60 days, so many are spent whiling the hours away. When going through a large scale change, many will question the “why”. Communication of the purpose is critical to gaining commitment.
Do I go higher or turn back? That was the question I faced on Everest on my four separate attempts. I choose to turn back on three. Horribly painful decisions that I knew were correct at the time. Whether it was vomiting on my hands and knees on the moonlit snow at 27,000 feet or high winds or losing my motivation; each case was real. Based on years of climbing, I knew in each situation that if I went on, I might not have the strength to come home.
In business, decisions are made on a daily basis that can impact the unit or individual’s future. Not as severe as dying on Everest, but each decision can however be a critical success factor for the future. Learning from the past is an important part of judgement. Factoring in key variables, some of which cannot be predicted, play a huge role in forming a decision. It is often the judgment of a leader, not the facts, that paves the way to successful decision.
As the temperature plunged below 0F, the winds picked up. I was warm and safe in my tent and in my −40F sleeping bag but something was wrong. All the water I had consumed was ready to come back out – a natural process. Not willing to leaving my warm confines, I found my pee bottle and began my work. I finished up, rolled over to go back to sleep only to feel a bit of extra warmth on my back, I had not closed the top of the bottle securely! With urgency and purpose, I sat up quickly only to find my warm, comfortable sleeping bag now covered in warm, wet urine! I threw on my jacket and began to clean up as much as I could. In the middle of this fiasco, I threw my head back and laughed out loud, what else could I do? I immediately felt better as I fell back asleep in my warm, wet sleeping bag.
Leading an organization through change can be thankless with leaders often becoming so focused on the task that they forget the big picture. The environment can be tense, everyone feeling high stress exacerbated by deadlines. When things go horribly wrong sometimes the best cure is to pause to find the humor in the situation and share a laugh. Everyone will be relieved, refocused and rejuvenated to get back on track.
Memories are Everything