Leadership Lessons from 28,000 Feet

The thing I have enjoyed most about climbing is meeting the new people I will be climbing with, while on an expedition. I have climbed with people from so many different countries, with varying skill sets, an array of mental fortitude, weak and strong self-discipline, different communication styles, relational styles, and strong and flimsy determination (you can read about the many colorful—and sometimes scary—characters from my climbs in my book!) It is said one of the challenging things about leading an expedition is bringing together a diverse group of people, who have paid large sums of money to do a climb, and quickly form them into a cohesive, effective team. The guide is under no illusions that this is literally a matter of life and death on a high mountain.

On Everest, we had a group of eight climbers from Europe, Asia and the U.S., with a range of ages from 26 to 52, and a widely varied climbing skillset. The challenge our guides faced was taking this diverse group of people who had just become acquainted that day, and quickly form us into a highly functional team where everyone could trust their teammates in life and death situations. I have to say our guides were legendary, and I was able to take some lessons from home, that leaders can apply in any team forming situation.

First, they started with the assumption that people want to do the very best job they can.

First, they started with the assumption that people want to do the very best job they can. Having that confidence and trust in people is important, because assuming people will do a poor job, severely undermines their self-confidence. Very few people come to work every day saying, “I plan to do a poor job today.” People naturally want to succeed, and as a leader, it is critical your give them the resources, encouragement and most importantly, the latitude to succeed. Give your team clear goals and expectations, then get out of their way and watch them climb to the top!

Second, never expect your team to endure something you are not willing to endure. Our guides and sherpas were with us every single step of the way, enduring the thin, cruel air of the soaring altitude, the bone-chilling cold, and the isolation from family and friends as we faced life-threatening conditions. The same truth applies to the corporate world—can your teams count on you as a leader, to be with them every step of the way, making the sacrifices and putting in the same hard work you are expecting from them? Remember, as a leader, all eyes are on you. What exactly will they see?

Third, it is critical as a leader to understand your team’s limitations. This gets magnified exponentially on a high mountain like Everest so it was imperative for the guides to quickly ascertain the team’s strengths and limitations in order to plan a strategy for the mountain. This included deciding who would attempt the summit, and in what order as soon as we had a clear weather window. As a leader you must realize that sometimes people really don’t have the skills, time or budget to do what is asked of them. Sometimes unrealistic demands have simply been placed on them. Because this happens all too frequently, it is very important to create an environment where people can be free to ask for help without fear of recrimination. If anyone was afraid to ask for help on Everest, it could mean life or death for our entire group. Business is much the same way.

Finally, besides trust and respect, being friendly and fun is important. The thing I really appreciated about our guides on Everest was they had such wonderful senses of humor, and used it whenever they could to help lighten the mood when everyone was suffering. It is astounding how powerful laughter and mirth can be.

I also noticed our Sherpas were very careful to use appropriate humor, meaning they never were sarcastic, and never denigrated anyone with their humor. They did tease each other, but did it in a playful, witty manner that was entertaining and appreciated. As a leader, being “terminally professional” undermines creativity. Humor is important in making an enjoyable and productive work environment.

Your leadership challenges might seem even more daunting than Everest, but I assure you, if you apply these simple but powerful lessons, taken from 28,000 feet above sea level, you will reach your goals.