4 Leadership Lessons I Learned From a Mountain-Climbing Crisis

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The ability to function when push comes to shove is incredibly relevant to today’s workplace. Think of the situation we all find ourselves in now, amidst the Great Resignation and the “quiet quitting” trend. We need ways to hire dynamic new team members (often remotely) and network deeply so we can face these unprecedented challenges as one.

As I led a team of corporate executives to the summit of California’s Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, I didn’t realize the hardest part would be the descent until my team member Kelly suffered from altitude sickness. She could barely walk, but our team fought our way to the relative safety of the mountain basin, where we managed to call for help via satellite communications.

What I knew and passed on to my team was that they had silently and unconsciously prepared for this moment even before they started preparing to climb the mountain. The work environment, its stresses, and leadership challenges had all prepared this group to use collaboration and teamwork to survive.

So how did effective leadership and teamwork save this special day on the mountain? And how can you bring these lessons into your own office and use them to hire new team members who will protect and support each other, no matter the scenario?

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1. Identify known risks and admit unknowns

When my team realized we had a problem, we needed to risk-assess our situation. Kelly’s altitude sickness would certainly improve as we continued down the mountain, but further exertion might weaken it.

I prepared the team for various contingencies by conducting a thorough risk assessment and mitigation plan prior to the climb. However, my rigorous planning was tested by the unexpected elements of Mount Whitney, such as the unknown hazards of the mountain’s terrain, weather, and sparse cell phone coverage that left us vulnerable to isolation.

We have learned that it is important for leaders to assess and identify the risks of a project in order to prepare to fight against them, but also to acknowledge the presence of unknown dangers.

2. Use regular check-ins to reinforce accountability

A key reason our team handled the disaster effectively was that we had programmed accountability into ascension by organizing a buddy system. Climbing couples were responsible for cohesion, which generated both loyalty and motivation, as climbers didn’t want to let their buddies down.

However, the buddy system had its weaknesses when promotion became problematic. Not knowing enough about altitude sickness, team members preferred to pull through rather than stop. Because both buddies wanted to reach the top for each other, they went to physical limits that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

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In a team, whether it’s climbing a mountain or undertaking an ambitious project, motivating one another while respecting individual boundaries and boundaries is critical to the success and well-being of the whole.

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3. Forge team identity to inspire action

We really played as a team when we realized how ill Kelly had gotten. To help her negotiate the switchbacks of the mountain, colleagues Mark and Derrick wedged Kelly between them and continued as a six-legged creature.

A willingness to support and support a team member is a crucial part of effective collaboration. Before the rise, my colleagues hadn’t felt much camaraderie—they only knew each other as names on an email chain. But during promotion preparations, I encouraged bonding. From the van trip to Lone Pine to Saturday night sessions to share about the defining experiences of their lives, I wanted to create one team rather a collection of individuals.

4. Practice leading with confidence

When a team finds itself in a dangerous situation, there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution, as there are multiple variables at play and multiple ways to respond.

When I saw that Kelly needed help, I knew we had to get off the summit and ask for help. I also had to trust that the team would share responsibility. Trusting a team in this way means leading with confidence. I knew there were factors out of my control and that mistakes and unforeseen mistakes were likely to have been made in our preparations, but confidence in my leadership and my team was key. Without trust, the team might have doubted their ability to get Kelly to safety. Her anxiety would have interfered with her ability to think and act clearly.

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Goal setting and collaboration are essential to leading with confidence, whether it’s reaching a mountain top or presenting a proposal in a conference room. We have learned that neither the team nor the leader are enough to be successful on their own. These principles are just as important and useful in an office or business.

As a leader, I needed a collaborative team willing to share responsibilities and take on roles they might not have anticipated. The team needed a leader who would guide its decision-making with confidence. As we developed confidence in each other’s abilities, we were able to work together and achieve the goals that such great effort requires for ultimate success.

With the support of her team, Kelly got the help she needed, recovered quickly and is currently training for her next outdoor adventure – and our team has never been stronger.

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