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Climbing the Leadership Mountain

Climbing the Leadership Mountain

As a Canadian who has found herself in the Arizona desert….I can honestly say I have absolutely no interest or desire in climbing Mount Everest.  Having said that…after hearing Alison Levine speak a few years ago (author of “On the Edge”)…oddly….I feel that I have more in common with her than I ever imagined.  I found her stories of the preparation, execution and aftermath of her extreme expeditions really hard to wrap my mind around…especially given her slight build and her approachable, outgoing, energetic style.  In fact…I would go as far as to say that if she was in a room full of people and I asked you to pick out the person that has climbed Everest twice…climbed the highest peaks of seven continents and skied to both the North and South Poles…she would be among the last people you would pick.  I guess it proves once again that unbelievable people can come in all shapes and sizes….and…don’t ever underestimate them!

I must also confess right out of the gate about how incredibly uninformed I was about mountaineering and the process of climbing Mount Everest prior to hearing Alison speak.  One of the major “a-ha” moments I had (and being an engineer and a scuba diver I should have not been so naïve about this) was that there is a process of acclimatization in accenting to such a high altitude.  Alison did a great job of describing how in order to get to the top you have to head down the mountain more than once.  The process is as follows:

·         Arrive at Base Camp (17,600ft) and spend several days preparing for the climb and adjusting to the altitude

·         Climb past the dreaded Khumba Ice Fall and up to Camp 1 (19,500ft).  Spend one night there and then head back down to Base Camp

·         Stay a few days at base camp to recuperate then head back across the Khumba Ice Fall and up to Camp 1.

·         Spend one night at Camp 1 then head to Camp 2 (21,000ft) where you spend 1-2 nights.  Then head back down to…you guessed it Base Camp!

·         Stay at Base Camp a few days…head through the Khumba Ice Fall and up to Camp 1 (1 night)…then Camp 2 (1 night)….then Camp 3 (1 night).  Then…you guessed it…all the way back down to Base Camp again!

·         The last time through the gauntlet you are hopefully making your way to your final bid for the summit.

So…in a lot of ways…our careers are made of our own version of climbing Mount Everest.  For someone who dreams of reaching the top…there are a lot of ups and downs…including many trips to “Base Camp” to recuperate and rejuvenate from the grueling rigor that the climb takes on our bodies and our psyche.  Each level of leadership we reach along the way is preparing us to reach the next level and what at first seemed insurmountable is now more familiar and gives us the courage to keep reaching higher.  It DOES NOT mean that each trek is not fraught with danger and unforeseen circumstances.  Each time you take something on – there is always a chance you won’t make it but the practice, preparation and heading back to “Base Camp” after each try increases the probability that you will make it.  Here is the summary note from the book on this topic:

“Progress doesn’t always look like progress and it doesn’t always feel like progress.  But no matter what it looks like or feels like, anything that makes it more likely that you’ll reach your goal is…progress.  So look for examples of hidden progress in your life and work – and encourage others to do the same.  Reward and encourage progress in all forms, not just the obvious ones.”

So what does this have to do with our leadership journey?  Well…if you have ever vied for a promotion and not gotten it – you may have faced seeing the summit just a few feet away…only to head back down the mountain to regroup at your base camp.  I certainly have faced that more than one time in my career.  As with Alison’s first failed attempt to reach the top - there were other factors that were unforeseen in my preparation and bid.  Another person scooted ahead of me and there was no time or room for both of us to make it.  I remain proud of getting so close to the top in previous attempts and if I am up for another climb – I will need to be prepared to face the grueling expedition ahead with no guarantee of success – only the promise of lessons learned…the support of incredible people and the joy of the journey.

I have also thought about Alison’s comments around how important teamwork is as you make that trek up the mountain.  Her summary comment is:

“Developing strong relationships is critical to success, not only in the mountains but in just about every environment.  It is especially important for leaders to connect with the right people.  And when I say the “right people”, I don’t mean rich people or famous people or people in positions of power or influence.  I’m talking about taking the time and making the effort to connect with people at every stage of your career, people who will rally around you, encourage you and support you.  And maybe even save your life – you never know.”

I have been blessed to have some incredible people on my team who have been climbing with me and been making summit bids of their own.  That is how it is when you build a relationship and chose your climbing partners – you have to both face the conditions and head back down the mountain together…to base camp…and plan a more successful summit bid another day!

Lastly, Alison describes finally making the summit on her 2nd attempt in 2010 and she was not climbing as part of a core team like she was on her 1st attempt.  She showed a picture at the summit and she talked about how - you would think that moment would have felt incredible – but it was not as satisfying as she thought it would be.  It’s the journey that felt rewarding – not the fleeting moment standing on the top.  I have to say that that accomplishments in my career have often felt the same.  Like Alison…we should all stop to smile and “take a picture” (enjoy the moment) of what we have accomplished– even if it takes several tries and is several years beyond when we thought we would achieve it.  That is what you do when you finally reach a destination you have been striving for…even if you don’t feel like doing it after such a tough climb!

Leadership questions of the week for YOU: “From what you know of what it takes to do something like climb Mount Everest – what correlations to leadership could you make?”  “What moment in your career do you associate with having to head down to base camp to get further up the summit?”  “Can you think of a moment where you finally reached a goal or the summit and it did not feel as rewarding as you thought it was?”  “What are the 2-3 reasons why we often feel that way?”

Thanks for reading….and remember…YOU make a difference!

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