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Lessons in Leadership from Mountaineering

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

“Because it’s there”. That was George Mallory’s famous answer when he was asked about why he wanted to climb Everest. It is true that there seems to be no other logical reason that people would want to expose themselves to mental hardship and physical risk to get to the top of a mountain. However, there is much to be said for the lessons that can be learned from the committing sport of mountaineering, particularly in the equally lofty arenas of leadership and personal management.

Leadership, like mountaineering, is often seen as an individual pursuit. A lonely quest where the leader, or mountaineer, pushes themselves to the limit, based on intrinsic traits of character, and hopefully stands on the summit of success to savour the praise of the population. Nothing can be further from the truth. Climbing a mountain is all about the team. The leader of the 1953 First Ascent of Mount Everest was Lord John Hunt, who never set foot anywhere near the top of the mountain. Further emphasising the importance of the team, summiteer Sir Edmund Hilliary never answered the question of whether he or Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were first on the summit.

There are two groupings of theories on leadership, at opposite ends of a continuum. On one side are the Trait Theories where, like the lonely mountaineer, the leader is seen to be born into the position, already in possession of all the resources necessary to ascend to high altitude. This set of ideas argues that the leader has the advantage of superior genetics or breeding that makes them extraordinary. Detailed and empirical studies of the genetic traits of famous leaders has debunked this myth. Again, the humble Sir Edmund had an idea of the truth. In his book, High Adventure, he is quoted as saying, “You don't have to be a hero to accomplish great things - to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated, to reach challenging goals”. The idea that anyone can be a leader, under the correct circumstances, is held in the group of ideas on the other end of the continuum, the Contingency Theories. Contingency leadership thinking is that leadership consists of nothing more than a set of skills, attitudes and habits that anyone can acquire. Many of these can be learned from mountaineering.

Mountaineering can be tough. One is often cold, sometimes wet, regularly tired. In the mountains, Mother Nature doesn’t wipe your nose, She wipes your nose in it! Adversity can be quite revealing. It can strip away our veneer and reveal the creature underneath. It can also teach us some important lessons about ourselves and others.

There is no App for experience

My first mountain experience is one I will never forget. Some mates and myself, as teens, got our hands on some caravanning sleeping bags, a pop-up tent and some of those old H-framed rucksacks. You know, the ones with the squeaky cotter pins holding them together. With tin mugs and pots strapped to the outside we headed into the Drakensberg. No weather checks (these were the days before and no idea what we were doing. We got lost, rained on, snowed on and ended up huddled together in a soggy mess for two days. What an epic! It was brilliant! I learned a great number of things that weekend and the mountains continue to teach me. Here are some of the lessons about life and leadership that mountains have offered.

Plan carefully

An ex-boss used to tell me, “plan the work and work the plan”. This was normally followed by “failing to plan is planning to fail”. He could have been talking about any mountaineering expedition. It starts with setting an achievable objective based on the time of year, the weather, the group and the mountain range you are playing in. Next comes the weather checks, access, equipment, food and the rest. A safety management plan and contingency planning go a long way to making the trip successful.

Pace yourself

Leading a group or team or business can be an endurance event. It is best to start at a pace you can sustain for some time rather than go out fast and blow up before the task is completed. Like in mountaineering it is importance to build in enough rest time to recharge the batteries, so to speak. Stephen Covey, in his 7 Habits, talks of “sharpening the saw”. If you are the saw that must cut through a lot of wood, it is very useful to keep it sharp.

Stick together

Many accidents, injuries and fatalities in mountaineering are caused by people splitting up. A party gets separated in thick mist and not everyone makes it back. In life and leadership, the team is everything. Unlike Sir Edmund, some leaders suffer from delusions of competence. Better leaders and mountaineers realise that they have weaknesses and surround themselves with competent people who can support their failings and complement their strengths.

Be stubborn and stay the course…

After creating a vision and the ability to inspire others to follow it, momentum is the most powerful tool of leadership. The same in mountains. It is the ability to keep going, to endure through cold, discomfort, fear, doubt and adversity that ultimately yields results. Keep the eye on the prize and keep moving.

…but, know when to turn back...

George Mallory died on Everest in the 1920s and his body was only found in 1999. It was always assumed that Mallory never reached the summit of the world’s highest mountain but his body revealed some startling facts that have stirred up some controversy. Mallory took a picture of his wife with him to place on the summit. Even though all his other belongings were present and very well preserved, the picture wasn’t there. Also, his snow goggles were in his pocket and not on his face. This would indicate that he had made a hard, successful push for the summit and was on his way back down after dark when he slipped and fell to his death. The lesson here is simple. Don’t let the objective be your undoing. Know when to quit and to head back to safety. This is more important when you are leading others to a shared destination. Sandy Irvine also died up there on that fateful day.

So, it seems that the pure sport of mountaineering offers something more than cold, discomfort and great views. The mountains can be our life-coach, our mentors and may reveal us in ways that other things can’t. Next time you want to do some leadership training with your staff, your colleagues or your students. Don’t reach for the whiteboard or the PowerPoint presentation. Forget the bosberaad or the Impi Challenge. Pack a backpack, grab your Garmin and head for the hills.

About the author

Nic is a mountaineer, Mountain Leader Instructor, and an active mountain rescuer. He is active in the development in South African mountain training standards and promotion of our mountain areas as an adventure tourism destination. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and heads up Chrysalis Project, an NPO that seeks to create transformational experiences for youth through adventures in nature.

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