Lessons in Leadership from the Summit Part II: You Don't Have to Climb a Mountain to be a Hero

SIG Summits are known for having amazing keynote speakers…and at our Summit in Denver last fall we had a speaker who took it to a whole new peak…so to speak. In fact, our keynote Alison Levine gave us a new appreciation for the word "Summit" as she shared her experiences in climbing Mt. Everest. At first glance, one wouldn't immediately think this tiny woman had the physical stamina or grit required for this incredible journey...which is exactly why making quick judgments isn't ever a great idea. Not only did she lead a team up that most arduous of climbs, but she did it twice. TWICE. Facing extremely dangerous and life-threatening conditions within 300 feet of the Summit, she made the painful decision to turn back her first time up...but both journeys provided lessons anyone can apply as a leader. She had so many great takeaways that I'm not sure I can adequately sum them up...but my attempt and interpretation are below:

On effective teams, everyone is a leader at some point. There may be only one person with a designated leader title, but allowing people to have a voice builds trust and loyalty. And if you do, your team is more likely to look out for the people on either side of them and make sure they are moving in the right direction as well. We once had a speaker whose mantra was that you don't have to have a title to be a leader...truer words were never spoken. Think about the word "leadership" as more of a mindset than a title and you empower everyone with the ability to own it. When you give people not just room...but permission to take something and run with it, you might be surprised by the result.

As a leader you can't expect your team to do anything you are not willing to do. One of the best ways to develop a loyal team is to roll up your sleeves and get dirty. Have you ever worked for someone who made it clear that certain tasks were "beneath" them? Good leaders always put their people first. And good leaders are willing to make the same sacrifices as everyone else to reach a common goal. If your team knows you are "with them," not just in spirit but by taking the same risks and tackling the same mundane tasks, they are much more likely to go to the mat for you and work together for the betterment of the team.

The way you deal with the weakest link can be the difference between success and failure. Some weaknesses are insurmountable. If you think of any competitive sport, you know that certain body types may be more successful than others in certain sports. Not many sumo wrestlers are petite women, for example. But even if you can't completely overcome a weakness, you CAN learn to compensate for it by leveraging some other hidden talent. A good leader will find the hidden talent and make the "weak link" feel like a productive member of the team. Having the ability to make all people feel good about their contributions can be the catalyst for propelling an entire team forward.

One person's judgment can bring down an entire team. Don't be so rigid in your decision-making that you aren't willing to see reason. Leaders need to know when to back down—literally and figuratively. If you do experience some kind of tragedy, keep the lines of communication wide open. Tragedy tends to do one of two things to a team — blows it up or pulls everyone together. The difference is often one of communication.

Have integrity in everything you do and trust your people to do the right thing. Set clear guidelines for your team, but make sure your team knows when to follow the rules and when to interpret them in ways that lead to better outcomes. If you have a two-way street of trust, you will know that your team will always do the right thing, even when they aren't being watched.

Be prepared. Do whatever you can in advance to enable your team to succeed. Climbing Mt. Everest requires physical training and fundraising...but it also includes bringing the "right stuff." According to Alison, even if you have great backing and resources behind an effort, if you don't bring the proper gear, tools or equipment, you'll have a difficult time reaching your goal. That is as true in business as it is in mountain climbing. Don't put yourself at a disadvantage by not coming prepared. You don’t ever want to fail and wonder if the outcome would have been different if you'd just been more prepared.

Trying and failing is better than not trying because you are afraid of failing. OWN your failures...whether the failure was something that was in your control or not, don't dwell on it. Learn from it and you will come back stronger the next time. As a leader, you need to be able to tolerate failures. A lack of tolerance for failure prevents learning from mistakes and achieving success. On the other hand, it's ok to be afraid to fail — fear is normal. It's complacency that will kill you.

You can't control the environment...you can only control the way you react to it. One way to make sure you are prepared for whatever the environment throws at you is to assemble the right team. Make sure you find people who possess the right combination of skill, experience and desire...and for heaven's sake, make sure they are team players. One thing Alison said that really resonated with me was that a group is really only a team if every person that's part of the group cares as much about helping others as they do about helping themselves. Work to build relationships with everyone on your team. Strong relationships are critical to success. You may not be able to control the environment you are operating in, but if you have a strong team that feels empowered to take action, you will all weather any storm together.

Sometimes you have to "move backwards" to make progress. When tackling a mountain like Mt. Everest, you have to climb to a higher camp, then go back down to the base camp...climb again to a higher camp and again go back down. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Again and again. Why? Because you won't be able to get to the top unless you have taken the necessary steps to acclimate to the incredibly high altitudes. Most people think that you can't be moving forward unless you're literally "moving forward." But it helps to think of "going backwards" more as a way of strengthening your foundation. Go into it with the mindset that it will allow you to get to your end goal with more strength and vision for what's ahead. And if you've set a really lofty goal, plan some mini goals to minimize stress and show success along the way.

Relationships matter. "Nobody gets to the top of Mount Everest by themselves. Nobody." In Alison’s book On the Edge: the Art of High-Impact Leadership she makes this statement on the very last page (p. 226) The key point is that relationships really do matter. Work at your relationship with every person as if they might be the one who sees you sitting cold and unmoving near the top of a mountain...if you've invested time in them and they feel a connection to you, they won't leave you stranded — they will make sure you get back down that mountain. Join us at SIG Summit next week in Amelia Island, Florida for more insights like this one. Alison Levine’s book can be purchased on Amazon for more great thoughts on leadership…and for some amazing stories as well!

Sarah Holliman