From The Book

Danger #1

"Remember not to have a fatal accident, because the community will think climbing is a dangerous thing, your friends will be bummed . . . and you'll be dead."
- Kitty Calhoun, America's top female mountaineer
in the 1990s, closing remarks at an American Alpine Club lecture

Time: July 20, 2007, Summit Day
Location: K2, Pakistan

4:45 a.m.: Vapor from my breath immediately freezes on my beard. At twenty - five degrees below zero and 26,500 feet above sea level, I'm lucky to be breathing at all. The three members of our team are not using bottled oxygen, and at this altitude, there is barely one - third the oxygen at sea level. With so little oxygen reaching our brains and fingertips, we struggle to stay warm, think straight, and climb higher. The list of reasons to turn back keeps growing. We can see the final summit climb hanging above us: 2,000 feet of twisting snow gullies, a nearly vertical traverse below a hanging glacier, and a knife - edged ridgeline. As we prepare for hours of physical and emotional endurance,we know that everything will be demanded of us - if we make it to the top at all. This is not just any mountain. It's K2: the world's second - highest and most feared peak. For our team, this day will be the ultimate test.

The Korean team struggles through the deep snow, barely 100 feet above us. Sucking bottled oxygen and teamed with three experienced Sherpas, they should be farther ahead. But at this altitude, simple problems become monumental challenges.They've reached a notoriously treacherous spot known as the Bottleneck. More than a dozen climbers have died there over the years, and the Koreans are rigging the first set of ropes,ensuring all our safety.

As I adjust my gear, I look up. Suddenly the Korean team's professional leader, Nima Nurbu Sherpa, a highly experienced climber who had summited Mount Everest six times, slips and falls. He rockets to the bottom of the Bottleneck, but slows as he toboggans across the only flat patch on the nearly vertical South Face.

I hold my breath, expecting him to plant his ice ax and stop himself on this relatively modest slope.

But he doesn't.

To our horror, Nima slides off the edge and tumbles into the darkness. At our altitude, he will fall for several minutes before hitting the glacier 10,000 feet below us.

Nima is dead. His body will never be recovered.

Leadership is a sweet delusion: so fragile, so easily sabotaged. Whether on a mountain or at work, leading others can quickly become difficult and dangerous. You want so badly to influence positive change in your organization. You accept the title of leadership and purposefully trek upward, propelled by hope. In this exciting journey, you seek to be a great leader leading a great company to great altitudes. With best - selling books, inspirational trainings, and smartly dressed consultants, you expect to finally reach the summit and become - well, great.

Then you slip off the cliff into reality. Instead of things going your way, leadership becomes a burden as the world fails to cooperate with your dreams. In an instant, the threat of failure awakens you from the delusion. Luckily most of us don't tumble to our deaths if we stumble. But how you respond in the face of real dangers defines you as a leader.

Leadership destroys climbers on windswept slopes at 26,000 feet, and executives in comfortable conference rooms. It occurs during the death of great ideas and plans. When the hoped - for promotions or projects die, when commitments or sales aspirations breathe their last breath, the danger emerges: great fear.

Only now will your true greatness arise. Or not.

Will you freeze in the face of your fears? Or will you fight?

Great Fear: The Nemesis of Great Leadership
In a moment of great fear, action stops. We see it all the time. One client, a second - generation office product company, reached such a critical point. The CEO knew that future sales growth and expansion required a new channel or path to focus the company's attention and resources. After a series on on-site assessments and an off-site program, it was clear that the necessary plans for repositioning the company were being thwarted by two old-guard salesmen. These salesmen were great day-to-day performers, but they had no capacity for the strategic thinking needed to support the plan.

Obviously these salesmen were out of place on the executive team, and many on the executive team agreed. But when they faced the prospect of reassigning these salesmen, or even firing them, the CEO froze. And the high costs of inaction befell him.

The company's founder (the CEO's dad) had hired these old-timers, and the CEO was too afraid to confront them. Although the executive team found the new strategy a much-needed breakthrough for getting to a new level of performance, this summit push failed because of the CEO's fear to take action. In a sense, he sabotaged his own company. Unable to accept his own weak leadership, he blamed the process instead. The CEO and his team were frozen in place, the summit not yet attainable.

Whether in an office or on a mountain, choosing to stay stuck in the safe world ensures losses of great opportunities to the ultimate strategy killer: fear. It stops staff from making great decisions, stops change agents from disrupting the status quo, and stops leaders from leading. Is this so surprising? After all, traditional business education occurs safely in a safe classroom with safe books and a safely tenured professor. So when great decisions have to be made, who has the courage to step forward? In the face of impending danger and high risk, many leaders are deterred from their mission or stopped altogether, no matter how well they're educated or think they're ready for the challenge.

You will wrestle with the fear of death no matter what altitude you're at. But if you want to reach the summit, you must fight onward.

How Do You Tame Your Fear?
Let's consider Nima's death that fateful day on K2, a mountain that is known to be deadly. It certainly wasn't surprising that someone would die on that summit push, although I wouldn't have guessed it would be Nima, who was level-headed and highly experienced. Nima's was the first mountaineering death many in our group of elite mountaineers had ever watched, and it was a particularly gruesome way to die. When Nima fell, with him went the group's strategy for fixing the three thousand feet of rope we needed to secure the summit climb. His team was supposed to fix the first thousand feet, our team would fix the middle thousand, and the Russians would fix the last thousand feet. Fixing these ropes creates risk and exhaustion, and sharing that risk and labor was the only logical and practical approach. Now our strategy was in disarray. Who even knew who had what section of ropes and the anchors we needed? Was Nima's pack loaded with critical pieces of the group's gear? The group froze.

When faced with fear, most people freeze up. Among humans, fear becomes the dominant biological response, and an estimated 90 percent of us freeze up when stressed. In the moment, this causes all sorts of problems (we get hit by the oncoming train instead of stepping off the tracks), and in the long term, it can destroy us (it suppresses our sex drive, leads us to withdraw from friends and family, drives substance abuse and other self-destructive behaviors,and causes weight gain). When we freeze, our relationships and health suffer direct consequences.

We see the same effects of freezing up in teams. As fear races through a team, whether the fear of confronting coworkers or the fear of a failed project, team members withdraw, morale sinks, and whispered conversations and accusatory e-mails cause distrust.

The rats start jumping off the ship, and the team self-destructs.

As leaders, we have to combat the freeze response and prevent it from taking root in our professional lives and the teams we lead. But how do you do this? When many high altitude leaders identify the moment they overcame the great fear that could have frozen them, they tell you they focused not on whether they succeeded or failed, but on the very fact that they acted in the face of great fear.

When the summit seems lost, when the risk of death is greatest, seize the opportunity to become a high altitude leader! At this moment 90 percent of your peers will fail, but the few possessing the fighter's instinct will leap the crevasse and continue the journey to the summit.

High altitude leaders tame fear in themselves, their teams, and their organizational cultures by taking decisive action.

How can you teach taking action? How do high altitude leaders consistently act in the face of real fear?

It's time to read the rest of the book.
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High Altitude Leadership:
What the World's Most Forbidding Peaks Teach Us About Success
Chris Warner, Don Schmincke
ISBN: 978-0-470-34503-0
240 pages
October 2008, Jossey-Bass
US $27.95
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Chris Warner and Don Schmincke ©2008. All rights reserved.