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.

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