Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Six leadership lessons I learnt climbing a mountain

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David Stewart, RYP International
David Stewart, RYP International
David Stewart (B Ed, Grad Dip Sports Science, master’s Business Leadership) David is the Founder & Principal of RYP International – A Coaching & Advisory Practice. For over 40 years he has worked globally with organisations, communities, sports teams, CEO’s and their leadership teams to develop their capability and culture to maximise performance.

Leadership & You #18

It’s not every day you have the opportunity of trekking up Africa’s highest peak with your daughter. She invited me to accompany her on an 8-day trek up Mt Kilimanjaro. Daunted at the prospect, I accepted, humbled by the fact that she asked me, so did not want to let her down. Apart from the usual need to get trek fit, and have the right equipment and clothing, there are no real barriers to hiking up Mt Kilimanjaro. But don’t be fooled, it is challenging (mentally and physically). Altitude sickness is a real and present danger which needs to be carefully monitored for, and managed.

Mt Kilimanjaro is one of the highest free-standing mountains in the world – rising to 5,895 metres. It starts with rainforest and ends with a snow-capped peak. Climbing up is hard work, even though you have guides and porters to help support your journey, and the weather plays a huge part in your level of comfort, so you need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best!

We did make it to the summit and back, but it did truly test my limits. I am writing this as I learnt invaluable leadership challenges. Anything worth achieving is hard work and requires teamwork and leadership. The six lessons I learnt were:

Encouragement is infectious

Colleagues, guides, and porters all encouraged and congratulated one another on each small milestone we achieved each day. This fuelled a sense of enthusiasm and confidence, but surprisingly it also helped build our resilience. The easiest option at any stage of the trek is to quit and head down the mountain. But given everyone on the team was providing so much encouragement and support, you did not want to let the side down – and hence you become more determined to press on.

Lesson 1: Team encouragement and enthusiasm fuels resilience and a sense of ‘can do’

Everyone is hurting going up the mountain

The pain and fatigue you suffer going up the mountain is not unique to you. Everyone is in the same boat. Everyone is fatigued (no matter who you are or the role you have) and dealing with their own issues. Any personal complaints about specific aches or ailments provides no value to the team. Instead, it is the little things that count when the going is tough. A friendly pat on the back, helping hand at difficult spots, grabbing a colleague’s water bottle for them, or a supportive smile when resting were exactly the right behaviours needed. Not a lecture on how tired and sore you are.

Lesson 2: Supportive positive behaviours help teams through challenging moments

One day at a time

Whilst we knew the aim was to make it to the summit, that was academic if you did not achieve the day’s milestone. Each day we would be briefed on what to expect for the day. This was broken into easier and harder bits, and we were reminded that if we stuck together then there would be “no problems”. At no stage did we discuss future days or what summit night might look like. The immediate focus was on ‘today’ and the successful completion of the day’s trek. We had to focus on the task at hand.

Lesson 3: A major goal can only be achieved by successfully achieving smaller milestones

Be aware of self and others

To be a valued team member, it required you to be both aware of yourself and aware of others. Your own health and well-being was your responsibility. If you were not feeling well, it was important to flag this early, rather than waiting until it became a major problem and thus becoming a burden to the rest of the team. Likewise, if you were well, you could support others who are not doing so well. Early intervention is crucial to survival; hence you need to constantly check-in on the verbal and non-verbal cues of your climbing colleagues. It is amazing what can be achieved in a nurturing environment where people feel a sense of support and belonging. Simple things such as stopping for a break, encouraging someone to drink water, sharing snacks, or slowing down the pace to ensure everyone kept up. This ensured team unity and collaboration.

Lesson 4: Good team dynamics start with individual support of self and others

Team passion and commitment is everything  

When you are pushed to your limit, it is amazing to see what can be achieved with a sense of unity and positivity. Each day the expectation was that together we will reach the next campsite, in readiness for dinner. This meant we had to collaborate to navigate each major hill, ridge, rock ledge and deep valley so we could collectively achieve the task at hand. There were times where I felt like quitting and throwing in the towel. But it was the collective team commitment that helped you find your inner strength to uphold your personal commitment and will to succeed.

Lesson 5: Positive team dynamics and a sense of progress is what fuels personal commitment

Adaptability is paramount

Hope is not a strategy – you cannot hope it does not rain, as it likely will. You cannot hope that someone does not get ill, as it is likely they will. You need to prepare for and bring solutions to deal with potential contingencies such as the weather, illness, personal ailments and equipment failure. There are many variables that need to be managed along the way, and you need to be prepared to deal with these variables in an agile and timely manner, without putting undue pressure or stress on colleagues.

Lesson 6: You are only as strong as your contingency plan


Is climbing Mt Kilimanjaro something I would recommend everyone do? I am not sure. For me this was a once in a lifetime experience to share with my daughter. Together we were able to plan, prepare, and achieve something special. The six lessons I learnt (whilst obvious in the cool light of day) were acquired and reinforced through experience. Learning by doing is the most effective and powerful teacher of life’s lessons. These lessons have application in everyday team scenarios. Every team at some point will endure hardship, and it is these lessons which will help leaders navigate successfully these times.

Leadership Lesson

To be an effective leader, you must first be considered a credible and valued team member.

Facta Non Verba = Deeds Not Words


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