How Mountaineering is like Business Leadership (and How It’s Not)
“Jobs fill your pockets; adventures fill your soul" - Jaime Lyn Beatty
In February 2016 Berlineaton, the company I co-founded with Shelly Berlin in 1996, celebrated its 20-year anniversary and is still going strong. Berlineaton serves alongside visionary leaders to help them deliver stronger futures for their organizations. Our Vision? A World of Courageous Endeavours. This vision extends to my personal life where one of my favourite pastimes is mountaineering. I like to climb big mountains and recently attained a personal best when I summited Pico de Orizaba, in Mexico, which at 18,491 feet is the third highest mountain in North America.
People frequently ask me to compare being a safe and successful mountaineer with leading a successful business. For any mountaineer/business leader this is a tough question and the correct answer is that there are some things that are the same, some that are not, and that each discipline can learn something from the other. So how is mountaineering like business leadership, and how is it not? Here are six things I’ve learned over the past 20 years about both of these important facets of my life:
Mountaineering is like business leadership because:
1. It’s a highly personal experience.
Leading a business or leading a rope team are pretty similar in that they are very personal experiences. Although there are countless training and development programs devoted to both business and mountaineering, there’s no cookbook way to develop a ‘nose’ for leading successfully in either realm.
In general, you need two things: 1) the desire, and 2) the experience. Having the desire ensures you can sustain yourself long enough to acquire the experience. This makes them interdependent and equally valuable leadership characteristics dependent largely upon integrating experiential learning strategies into your daily activities. I mean, really, did you learn how to tie your own shoes because someone walked you through a 50 slide PowerPoint presentation? I don’t think so.
2. Success can depend on superior planning, or just pure luck.
Like successful business leaders, successful mountaineers are usually good planners. For mountaineers, planning efforts largely concentrate on reducing the variables in the few aspects of their endeavours over which they have the most control such as physical fitness, equipment, and knowledge of the terrain, routes, weather, and a host of other details.
Superior planning ensures that when objective dangers such as weather or unexpectedly difficult terrain interfere with your Plan A, you have a good Plan B in your back pocket just in case. In business, it’s easy to become a ‘one trick pony’ so your Plan B should be a diversification strategy to make sure that you can meet the needs of a variety of clients, with a variety of products, to weather the inevitable economic storms that also strike unexpectedly.
Luck can also play a deciding role in the success or failure of a business pursuit or mountain expedition, although many successful mountaineers and business leaders probably would agree with Henry Ford who said, “the harder I work, the luckier I get”.
3. You have to park your ego at the door.
Like business, most mountaineering endeavours rely for safety and success on the strength of a team of like-minded people. It is possible to succeed in both business and mountaineering on your own but typically you must rely on others to help you get to where you want to go while minimizing the risk.
In risk mitigation, confronting the naked truth is important in both disciplines for two main reasons: 1) It helps you be clear about your strengths and weaknesses so you can move forward with that knowledge, and 2) it helps build a strong culture of trust within the team. The only way to successfully confront the truth is to park your ego at the door, embrace reality and engage with the challenges you will no doubt face using a continuous improvement orientation.
For example, I once tried to climb Mt. Robson, but failed. At almost 14,000 feet Mt. Robson is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies and because of that, and the degree of technical challenge and weather variables involved, it is summited less frequently than Mt. Everest. Approximately 90% of those who try to climb it are unsuccessful. Nevertheless, on this occasion my partner and I made it to within sight of the summit, ascending to almost 13,000 feet, before being turned back by a storm that forced us to retreat to our tent and stay there for more than a day.
What did I learn from this failure?
I will have to climb faster to beat the storms that inevitably strike the mountain later in the afternoon. To do that I need to increase my fitness levels and improve my technical skills, which calls for more work with various climbing partners on increasingly tougher mountains. Resting on past accomplishments or more easily won laurels will clearly not suffice. I have no doubt that, one day, I will return and when I do I will be stronger, more competent, and therefore more likely to succeed safely.
So then, how is mountaineering not like business leadership?
1. There are a lot of highly accomplished, dirt poor climbers.
A wise professional guide once said to me, “Do you know how to make a small fortune in the mountain guiding business? Start with a large one.” Although some mountaineering is conducted with a profit margin in mind, like most sports, most people don’t pursue this sport for the money.
As a result, most mountaineers (like me) go into the mountains for purely recreational purposes. Consequently, most mountaineering activity has no customers, no suppliers, no balance sheet and few imperatives other than seeking to achieve various personal and small group goals related to either summiting this mountain or shredding that couloir (translation: a gun barrel-like vertical ice gully perched on the side of a mountain).
There are those who would argue that the planning and delivery of a big expedition is a ‘business like’ activity, and I would agree to a certain extent. However, the core business of business is profit, and the sport of mountaineering – usually – is not.
2. Most people think you’re nuts.
Virtually 100% of the population come into contact with various types of businesses on a daily basis. This makes many people familiar with the business world, and some status and respect is automatically extended to those who lead successful businesses. However, 99% of the population never has, and never will, be mountaineers. In fact, most people will spend much of their lives going out of their way to make their lives as safe and predictable as possible, a pursuit which can lead some of them to the brink of various phobias. Consequently, their impressions of mountaineering tend to be shaped by the latest scary movie that comes out about climbing, which is usually about a disaster on Mt. Everest, or some other remote and inaccessible peak that most mountaineers will never attempt.
When you tell people that you like to climb mountains, they usually assume that you are going to die a horrible death. Sadly, your enthusiastic descriptions of beautiful natural surroundings and honest, hard, physical effort rewarded with enriching comradeship and inspiring moments tend to fall upon deafened ears. Simply put, although they don’t say it out loud, most people just think you’re nuts.
3. Sometimes, acrophobes are good to have around.
Are you afraid of heights but know how to make a spreadsheet ‘sing’? You’re hired!
Despite the sport branching out in recent years to include a much more diverse range of participants (like myself!), the classic paradigm of the mountaineer still largely rings true: Caucasian, male, under 40 years old, perched on the edge of a precipice, and ridiculously fit. Don’t forget to add a coil of rope over the shoulder and, in France, a Gauloises cigarette dangling from his lips. This stereotype, while attractive in many ways, hardly typifies the wide range of skills and competencies of those required to run any modern business which, suitably enough, tends to transcend physical fitness, race, gender, ethnicity, educational and experiential boundaries.
And in this there is something I particularly enjoy about both mountaineering and business: it’s counterintuitive. For example, recently, I was wildly happy to ‘tick off’ a summit I have been pursuing for years: Mt. Tom Taylor, on Vancouver Island. It’s a tricky objective involving complex route finding to the base camp, a long approach to the summit through rocky, high alpine terrain and, near the end, some extremely exposed rock climbing. Nevertheless, our trip leader did a fantastic job guiding through difficult terrain while we scrambled several thousand vertical feet into the high alpine fully loaded like beasts of burden. The leader provided encouragement, expert rope work, calming dialog and helpful advice, and led through a series of very ‘airy’ crux moves near the summit with 1000 foot drop offs on either side, while, on and off, singing.
Who was this sterling example of mountain leadership?
A middle aged secondary school teacher and self-described ballerina, of course, assisted by her friend: the grandmother of two. Like most innovative experiences, it’s not always the person who ‘looks the part’ who turns out to be the best leader and, in both business and mountaineering, we ignore this truth at our peril.
If you are interested in finding out how your organization can improve its effectiveness, please contact me at 250 472-3767, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.