Mountaineering can be tough. One is often cold, sometimes wet and 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 – giving us the skills to succeed in other aspects of our lives.

“Because it’s there”. That was George Mallory’s famous answer when he was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. It’s true there seems to be no other logical reason than that for people to want to expose themselves to the mental hardship and physical risk of getting to the top of a mountain. However, there’s 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 him or herself to the limit based on intrinsic character traits – and hopefully stands on the summit of success once done to reap the praise of the population. Nothing could 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, Sir Edmund Hillary never answered the question of whether he or Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were first on their historic summit.

There are two theory groupings regarding leadership, and both sit at opposite ends of a continuum. On one side are the Trait Theories. This is where, like the lonely mountaineer, the leader is deemed to be born into the position, and already possesses all of 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 him or her extraordinary.

Detailed and empirical studies of the genetic traits of famous leaders has solidly 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 by the group of ideas on the other end of the continuum – namely the Contingency Theories. Contingency leadership thinking consists of nothing more than a set of skills, attitudes and habits that anyone can acquire. And many of these skills can be learned from mountaineering.

There is no App for experience
My first mountain experience is one I’ll 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 old days before yr.no), 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 adventure! It was brilliant! I learned a great number of things that weekend and, decades later, the mountains still continue to teach me.

That said, here are some of the lessons about life and leadership that mountains have offered me:

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’re 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, 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. For example, in mountaineering it’s 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”. His rational makes a lot of sense because, if you’re the saw that has to cut through a lot of wood, it’s very useful to keep it sharp.

Always stick together
Many of the accidents, injuries and fatalities in mountaineering are as a result of 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. As a consequence, they surround themselves with competent people who can support their failings, as well as complement their strengths.

Be stubborn and stay the course…
After Vision and the ability to inspire others to follow it, Momentum is the most powerful tool of leadership. The same goes in mountains. It’s the ability to keep moving, to endure through cold, discomfort, fear, doubt and adversity that ultimately yields results. So keep the eye on the prize and keep moving… but know when to turn back.

George Mallory died on Everest in the 1920’s 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 the discovery of 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 of 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 indicates 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 when to head back to safety. This is more important when you’re leading others to a shared destination. Sandy Irvine also died up there on that fateful day.

As you can see, the pure sport of mountaineering offers something much more constructive than just cold, discomfort and great views. The mountains can be our life-coach, our mentors and may reveal aspects of ourselves to us in ways that other things can’t. So 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 instead! – (c) 2017 NavWorld

About The Author

Nic Shaw

Nic Shaw is a keen mountaineer, trail runner and adventurer. He's also a Mountain Leader Instructor and the Director of Entabeni Expeditions & Outdoor Centre based in the Central Drakensberg and Stellenbosch.

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