In my spare time, I like to climb mountains. I have been blessed with opportunities to climb some of the highest mountains in the world, on every continent (yes, even Antarctica!) In fact, I’ve even written a book about my adventures. Most of the time I succeed and make the summit, but every now and then I don’t. You can imagine the whirlwind of emotions having invested so much time, energy and money into something, only to not quite reach your goal.
Climbing involves a myriad of challenges, from fitness, to logistics, to mastering fear, to relationship building. Most of all, climbing requires leadership. In fact, climbing is fascinating in that I have learned so many invaluable lessons “on the mountain,” I have often applied these rare experiences to my professional career. Over the course of several blogs, these lessons and experiences are what I would like to share with you.
In Nepal, there is a gorgeous mountain called Ama Dablam, which is translated “Mother’s Jewel Box” or “Mother’s Necklace. The name is derived from the glacier stretching across its southwest face, which looks like a jewel box hanging on the neck of the mountain. Ama Dablam is over 22,000 feet in elevation, and is about ten miles from Everest. It has a wonderful pyramidal shape and along with the Matterhorn, is the most aesthetically beautiful mountain I have ever seen. It is also an extremely challenging climb. In fact, Ama Dablam is probably the toughest technical climb I have ever undertaken (along with the Eiger in Switzerland.)
The climb takes a few weeks to accomplish with an extended trek in and out of the region just to reach the peak. The actual climb involves four camps (including base camp,) and the highest camp lies on a hanging ridge at approximately 21,000 feet. The climb between the first and second camp involves sustained rock climbing, and the climb between the second and third camp (called camp 2 and camp 2.7) involves sustained pitches on snow mixed with rock, and one completely vertical section.
The section to the summit involves climbing a fifty to seventy degree pitch on snow and ice, around a hanging glacier. For me, it was the scariest climbing I had ever done. Picture hanging from a fixed line with your crampons constantly slipping on the mixed ice and rock, dangling above a 1,000 foot plus drop, knowing that if the rope fails, you will fall and you will die.
I cannot tell you how many times I thought about quitting during this climb. It seemed impossible while I was enduring it, and a looming fear was ever-present. I have never been on a climb with such an extended period of extreme exposure (in layman’s terms, “exposure” means if you fall you die.)
The Key Question
“So,” you may be asking yourself, “what does this have to do with business?” As leaders there may be many times we face situations that seem impossible. Times you want to just quit and throw in the towel. But the key question climbing has taught me to ask is the following: “Is it impossible? Or is it just extremely difficult?”
This question is key because those are two very different things. The reality is that Ama Dablam is not an impossible climb. Many people with skillsets similar to mine had successfully summited. It was, however, without question, extremely difficult. I was homesick, at very high altitude, facing severe weather challenges, and undertaking (suffering) the most ridiculously dangerous climbing of my life.
When I evaluated whether I wanted to quit or keep going, the key to success was not allowing myself to rationalize I was quitting because it was impossible. When I admitted to myself it was doable, only extremely difficult, it was that insight that allowed me to keep going. It was that insight that ultimately caused me to stand victorious on Ama Dablam’s beautiful summit.
What are the leadership challenges you are currently facing? Are they impossible? Or are they just extremely difficult?