Leadership on the sharp end: What climbing has taught me about leading

A few weeks ago I found myself clinging to a featureless rock several hundred feet off the ground on Half Dome’s southwest face. I did not want to be there at that moment. I had accidentally veered off the route onto more difficult terrain, and a small mistake now would mean a 50+ foot fall down a granite slab. My climbing partner was tethered out of view below. The sheer exposure of the moment overwhelmed me as my mind tried to reject reality. Irrational thoughts crossed my mind -- I could slide down the face and grab a bolt 20 feet below or maybe I could leap to an easier section. I quickly surmised that these were terrible ideas that would end badly. There was only one option, I had to down climb a technical portion on holds smaller than the size of a knuckle to get back on the proper route. With acute focus I willed myself move by move and slowly gained easier ground. A few minutes later I breathed a sigh of relief as I reached the anchors, adrenaline coursing through my veins.

So what does this story have to do with leadership? This experience epitomizes the fact that leadership is most often an inside job. My ability to get back to safety was less about climbing skill and more about getting clearly focused, tapping into my inner strength, and making a decision. This is not to say that leadership is removed from others, but our ability to withstand and navigate the exposure that is inherent in leading starts from within. Here are three key takeaways from this experience.

Leaders face exposure, get comfortable with that

There is no denying the fact that the leader is often the most exposed position in any team or organization. For many, it is this very exposure that derails them from truly showing up in their full capacity. When exposure hits we often want to resort to old patterns of coping and turn away from the discomfort instead of facing it head on. For some this may show up as shying away from a needed confrontation while for others it might be displayed as micromanaging. When the uncomfortable feeling of exposure or risk step into play the most important thing to do is acknowledge it. Step back for a moment and question your initial reaction and whether it is the best course to achieve the outcome you are looking for. Bringing awareness to your unconscious reactions to exposure is the first step in rewiring your decisions for more productive outcomes.

Know your limits AND push them

As many climbers know, if you push yourself too far beyond your limits you could find yourself in extremely dangerous circumstances. This is true for leadership in general, as jumping too far into the deep end can lead to disastrous results. HOWEVER, many individuals shy away from their limits and have no idea what their true capabilities are. Whether they are afraid to take on more responsibility, change to a new role, or step into managing others, the fear of failure prevents many from knowing what their true limits are. Push your boundaries and see where your strengths and weaknesses actually exist. Learn new skills to enhance what you are good at AND what competencies you need to develop. Leadership requires constant growth, so find your limits and grow them. Once you notice you feel uncomfortable or exposed, simply ask yourself what is underneath that feeling and what could be done to lean in and explore this territory. Get clear on what skills would be useful in navigating this terrain. Working with a coach or mentor can be useful in moving through this process more quickly.

Develop others around you

As I clung to the rock in my moment of despair there was one thing I was not worried about, my climbing partner. Having faith that my climbing partner was competent and doing her job was critical in allowing me to focus on what was important in that moment. While leadership can be an internal game, it is crucial to have a supportive and skilled team around you so that you do not have to manage all the details of the business. If you lack faith in your team you will never be able to perform at a high level. As the saying goes, There are no bad teams, just bad leaders. Develop the people around you to perform at their best so that you can focus on what’s most important in your role.

If you like what you read or have thoughts to share, please leave a comment!

Are you complaining your power away? Probably.

Are you complaining your power away? Probably.

Complaining is like vomiting your personal power away. Sure it feels good to a degree, but objectively what is it saying about you. What does it say about who or what is in control of your life? Certainly not you at that moment. There is of course, a helpful way in which to get something off your chest, but deep down we know the difference between venting and spewing our victimhood on anyone in earshot.

A Simple Lesson on Leadership: Share Success - Own Failure

We have all been exposed to those who grab for attention and hide from responsibility. Whether they are our leaders, teammates, family members, or even ourselves, this behavior can erode trust and cause resentment. The good news is, there is a simple way to avoid this trap and develop a level of self-awareness that handles success and failure in a way that builds stronger leaders, teams, and relationships.

Much of how we communicate our relationship with success and failure depends on the precise words we use. Shifting blame by using “you” or “they” statements tends invoke defensiveness, while taking all the credit for success using “I” statements leads to resentment. Similarly, when success is shared and attributed to others first, trust and camaraderie are likely to follow. Using the following simple rule will help navigate this tricky terrain:

Share Success - Own Failure

 

Shift the focus onto others (using YOU and WE) to share success

Start with others when sharing a collective success. Share what went well with individuals directly (“your report was very well articulated”). Then acknowledge everyone for their efforts using “we” (“we accomplished our goal”). Share the success without shifting the focus onto what you did well (even if you did a lot). If you receive a compliment from your team, don’t embellish or downplay the complement, simply thank them. Even when your team is not present, avoid the urge to shower yourself with praise. Instead, state how proud you are of leading a winning team.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.
— Lao Tzu

Shift the focus onto yourself first (using I and ME) when challenges arise

While no one likes to be wrong, the most trusted leaders have no problem admitting mistakes and taking responsibility. When problems or challenges arise, start by asking yourself “what is/was my role in this? What could I have done differently?”. Only after you have honestly explored the “I” focused questions should you shift to “we” focused questions. “What could we have done differently? How did we as a team contribute to this challenge?”. Lastly, if the causes of the issue are not flushed out after “we” based conversation you might venture into “you” based questions. Importantly, these are not “you” based statements (“you messed up”) but questions (“what might you have done differently that would have helped minimize the problem?”).

While this may seem counter-intuitive, attributing success to others and accepting responsibility for problems will help create a trusting environment. Ultimately allowing the collective effort to accomplish far more than if it were to rest solely on the laurels of its leader.

Life and death in the mountains. Lessons of leadership and personal drive: An interview with mountaineer Jim Geiger

Down at base camp, decisions can be collaborative. But high on a mountain, a leader needs to call the shots with unwavering confidence, explains Jim Geiger, who, at age 68, set his sights on becoming the oldest American to summit Mount Everest from Nepal.

Geiger is no stranger to taking the lead in life. Two years ago, he attempted his ambitious goal.  A 67-year-old American man had set the previous record, summiting the 29,032-ft. peak of Mt. Everest in 2009. Geiger was ready to make history.

But as fate would have it, a massive avalanche fell onto the Ice Fall killing 16 Sherpa and closing the mountain for the season. Geiger felt fortunate just to survive and return to his family in Sacramento, he said.

Geiger’s experience in the mountains began almost two decades ago, and in that time,  he’s climbed mountains from Antarctica to the Himalayas.

I reached out to Geiger to understand what it takes to survive such perilous endeavors. What became clear through our interview is that, high on the mountain, leaders need to be decisive, and everyone needs to be prepared.

Leaders at their best bring out the best in others

On Leadership

A seasoned leader knows that leadership should adapt to the situation at hand. There is no style that best fits all scenarios.

In cases of extreme risk, Geiger says, leaders need to take full ownership and be entirely competent in making tough decisions amidst high pressure. Leadership, he says, requires a high level of trust, with little room to question the leader's direction. As someone who has been led by some of the most talented mountaineers, Geiger found the leaders he felt most safe with were those whose abilities he trusted AND whose confidence in their ability to lead the team to safety never faltered. In short, leaders in these situations need to be decisive. On every climb, something is going to go wrong, and often there is little room for building consensus. While this style of leadership may not be appropriate for all scenarios, it can make the difference between success and tragedy in high-stakes situations.


Geiger’s Characteristic of the “Decisive Leader”

Decisive - Willing to make the tough decisions and assume full responsibility

Confident -  Be confident and fully aware of their abilities

Commitment to Team - The goal does not come at the expense of the team’s lives

Integrity -  This is key in the team’s ability to trust and follow the leader

Organized -  Be prepared, efficient, and well planned

Highly Adaptable - Ability to rapidly adjust to changing conditions

Acute Awareness - Be present and attuned to your team and surroundings

Instill Confidence - Bring out the best performance in others


Geiger recalls a moment high on Pico de Orizaba, the third highest mountain in North America, when his group’s guide exercised decisive leadership.

Amidst deteriorating conditions with high winds and sleet, the guide called off the ascent just below the summit. In this situation, any slip could have been fatal and sent the entire team cascading down the mountain. The team was reminded of this when they passed by the location where two climbers had fallen to their death just the day before. The guide’s decision wasn’t questioned because he was confidently decisive and openly voiced a concern many on the team were thinking. It was a moment where a decisive leader needed to make the call to abort, a decision that likely saved lives.

While the conditions many of us face on a daily basis are unlikely to be so risky, situations do occur where decisive leadership is required. The conditions of such situations generally have the following characteristics: highly time-sensitive decisions, high-stakes, and requiring high level of expertise or experience. In such scenarios, having a decisive leader might just prevent catastrophe.

When to exercise decisive leadership:

Highly Time Sensitive Decisions - High Stakes - Requiring High Level of Expertise

 

On Personal Leadership

“The mountains have been a great way to learn about life,” Geiger says “There is no way you can avoid learning when you are in the mountains.”

His obsession with climbing mountains began when he was 40 and grew steadily. Since then, he has found himself atop peaks across the globe. These accomplishments, however, did not come easily, and they required a great deal of personal leadership.

If you don’t prepare, you prepare to fail

 

The fact that Geiger stepped into such a demanding arena at a later stage in his life is a testament to how far we can push ourselves if we are dedicated  to a task. When asked what he felt were the key elements to his success as a mountaineer, Geiger gave a very clear list of the traits he felt were required to achieve any ambitious goal.


Geiger’s Personal Leadership Traits

Commitment - Be unwavering in your dedication to achieve your goal

Preparation - Understand all the variables in front of you and prepare yourself

Skill - Know your abilities, your limitations, and where you need grow

Consistency -  Do what you need to do everyday to become better at what you do

Self-Motivation - Find your source of inspiration within


I found these characteristics relevant to anyone who has set a goal for themselves. Whether it is in developing a new product, launching a business, or climbing a peak, these traits are paramount in achieving our goals.

According to Geiger, this is not about being on the mountain. This is about being always ready to climb. You set your goal and don’t worry about being five steps ahead, just the step in front of you. That is where the ease of the climb comes in. If you are consumed with what is 10 or 20 steps ahead of you, that is when life becomes difficult. Being in the moment and focusing on the next step is how goals are accomplished. Those who have committed to long term goals know that, while it is crucial to set a clear course, you only get to your destination by being present to what needs to be done in the moment.

For Geiger, these traits paved the foundation that allowed him to accomplish his goals. For a 20 year period he set out to climb one significant peak per year. During this time he found himself atop peaks from Alaska to Mexico and as far as Russia. Regardless of the location or the climb itself, Geiger focused on what training he needed to do on the day ahead of him. Instead of focusing on standing at the peak, he carefully honed his physical ability and his technical skills on a daily basis. He had no idea if climbing these mountains was possible, but he was committed to being as prepared as possible when the opportunity came. It was the accumulation of these daily tasks that prepared him for the days he would attempt to summit.


If you are interested in learning more about Geiger, check out his website: http://www.summitleadercoaching.com/ or watch the trailer for the upcoming documentary detailing his journey to Everest by clicking here.

The WD-40 Company - A case study on the power of a "tribal culture"

Garry Ridge strives to create a workplace where employees have a sense of contributing to something greater than themselves — one that allows them to go home feeling happy and fulfilled. It’s a simple concept, he says, but it makes all the difference for employees at the WD-40 Company, where Ridge serves as Chief Executive Officer.

Ridge says his employees are part of a corporate culture that he describes as a “tribe,” rather than a team. Given the fact that employee engagement at the WD-40 Company is over 90% (almost three times the national average) it seems Ridge might be onto something.

In a recent interview, I asked Ridge how he managed to create a “tribal” culture. What I learned was not a story of unlimited holiday, catered lunches, or office ping-pong tables, but one of belonging, purpose, and value. While these may seem like the usual elements of corporate culture, the WD-40 Company has made a conscious effort to weave them into the very fabric of the organization.

Purpose

Know your purpose. Is there clarity on why you get up everyday? This was a recurrent theme from Ridge. If a company’s purpose is not crystal clear, he said, there is little to connect people to why they exist within it. While some may believe that purpose-driven companies are limited to charities and social enterprises, the fact that a corporation that sells “oil in a can” has built purpose into the core of its being indicates the same potential for any company.

We are about creating lasting, positive memories by solving problems in factories, homes, and workshops around the world. We create opportunities and we solve problems.
- Garry Ridge on the mission of the WD-40 Company

While most organizations clearly state their mission and purpose, it takes conscious effort to take them from a thin veneer to an embedded attribute of business. In Ridge’s words, it is their company’s commitment to their purpose that creates a rich sense of belonging among the staff.  Ridge knows that people crave a sense of belonging, he said, and it was this belief that led him to create a “Tribal Culture”.

What is a Tribal Culture? This was one of my main curiosities. According to Ridge, he and his colleagues at the WD-40 Company wanted to create something that people can own. A team, he said, wasn’t enough. This began a search for alternatives, and what came to mind was a tribe. To Ridge, a team is something that you play on in brief situations to win an event or to solve a problem. A tribe, in contrast, creates a circle of safety — a group of warriors willing to fight for each other and their organization.

Tribal Values

Another facet of tribal culture, Ridge said, was a clear set of values. This goes far beyond a few words posted prominently on the wall — they are the lifeblood of the organization. In Ridge’s words, “Our tribal leaders talk about our values every day, that’s the only way we make decisions”. This is a significant distinction that separates companies with lived values as opposed to stated values. Values should be alive, spoken about frequently, and used as guidepost. This perspective of values not only informs decisions at the WD-40 Company, but it also “sets people free, as it gives them an area to play in that they are comfortable,” Ridge said.

In addition to being embedded into daily conversations, values are also a part of the WD-40 Company’s extensive employee-development program. A key tool in this effort is the company’s “leadership lab,” a global program that teaches concepts ranging from conflict resolution to strategic planning and problem solving. The WD-40 Company has also sponsored over 25 of its employees through a Masters in Executive Leadership at the University of San Diego over the past two decades.

Ridge is committed to improving leadership beyond his role as CEO by teaching leadership development at the University of San Diego. In his view, it is the job of leaders to make work enjoyable. Ridge quotes Aristotle, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work,” which was written two thousand years ago. Though Ridge also adds, “We are pretty slow learners.” This point was driven home by his notion that employees who find more satisfaction in their work produce at a higher quality and are more likely to protect the company.

Learning Moments

When it comes to tribal leadership, the WD-40 Company’s leaders have two core responsibilities: learning and teaching.  At some level, we all have the desire to learn and teach, and the WD-40 Company has taken this to heart. “We don’t make mistakes, we have learning moments,” Ridge said — his philosophy when it comes to addressing situations that don’t go as planned. Importantly, the culture at the WD-40 Company freely supports sharing both positive and negative outcomes so that all can benefit from learning. This concept is reinforced by constantly inquiring what the potential for learning is in any given situation.

Imagine a place where you go to work everyday, you make a contribution to something greater than yourself, and you go home happy.

This is the basic goal that Ridge aims for. While he acknowledges the simplicity of the statement, he also realizes that it is not necessarily easy. At the same time, he laments the fact that almost 70% of the American population is disengaged at what they do. They don’t go home happy and they don’t feel fulfilled. According to Ridge, it is up to leaders to change that. The fact that the WD-40 Company’s financial returns have steadily increased, in tandem with their tribal culture, suggests that this strategy goes far beyond making employees happy. It may be the key element in building resiliency into any business.

The Trap of Entitlement

The Trap of Entitlement

The world does not owe us shit. I hated this gritty realization when it hit me. I figured life would work out exactly as I had imagined it. My career, relationship, health, and family would all somehow align into this perfect dream I envisioned. I would have my house tucked away in the woods, with an awesome family, and ample free time to follow my passions. I mean, I did all the “right” things.

Confidently Lost: Finding Fulfillment in Confusion

Confidently Lost: Finding Fulfillment in Confusion

We have all had moments of complete disorientation in life. Where direction, purpose, and clarity evade our every attempt to make progress or feel confident about any decisions we make. Our internal compass which may have been so clearly pointed days, weeks, or months before spins aimlessly. We spend our time toiling about our tasks, grasping for fulfillment in something, anything.