Leadership at 20,000 Feet

This year has been filled with outdoor adventure. Topping the list are two mountaineering trips to Nepal with Red Panda Expeditions. This past spring I attempted to climb Island Peak, making it to 18,500 feet before turning back. I returned to Nepal in the fall, this time making it to the summit of Lobuche East, at 20,075 feet. The overwhelming beauty of the Himalayas, the company of great people, and the extraordinary leadership of our climbing guides were constants.

Our Team and Lead Guide, Lenduk Lho Mee on Lobuche East, 6119 meters.

“It’s a round trip. Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.” Ed Viesturs

Prior to our team’s accent of Lobuche East we caught news that a climber had died from altitude sickness attempting Island Peak and a second had been severely injured in a fall. The inherent risks that come with high altitude mountaineering are out of our control but how we lead and who we chose to follow can make the difference between getting down or not.

I returned to Nepal to climb again, knowing I could trust my friend and climbing guide with my life. His leadership is a great example of what I’ve seen work both in the mountains and in the workplace.

Without trust, relationships breakdown, teams become ineffective, and organizations fail.

My first trip to Nepal was built around trust in a friend’s recommendation and my second was built on my own experience and the resulting trust.

Three aspects of building trust became apparent throughout my climbs:

  • Skill – Knot tying, using an ice axe, climbing with crampons, ascending and descending a fixed rope, assessing weather conditions…so many skills are needed for a successful climb but what I noticed most was how our leader set the pace. Climbing is tough work. Climbing at altitude can kill you. From the time our small plane landed in Lukla at 9,383 feet, and until we stood atop Lobuche East 14 days later, at 20,075 feet, every step we took was intentional and planned ahead. Our guide new the risk of going too fast and I knew he could have gone much faster. His skill as a guide kept us at a pace that allowed our bodies to acclimate to the ever decreasing oxygen levels. Skill builds trust.
  • Authenticity – I grew up in a faith based community filled with great people and could see no inconsistencies or flaws in the leaders I followed. This of course changed over time. I began to see the facade that all of us can put between ourselves and others. It’s part of being human and if left unchecked can become a detriment to effective leadership. Our climbing guide’s heartfelt expression of his faith during our fellowship at base camp was as authentic as I’ve ever seen. When leaders are living authentically we come to know them for who they truly are and it builds trust. The trust developed with our lead guide was a consistent companion from the time we started ascending to our safe decent from the summit.
  • Service – Great leaders serve and our guides went above and beyond that of most guiding companies. Serving meals, filtering water, teaching necessary skills, and tending to sickness are just a few ways.  Most significant in my mind is how our guides served during summit days. The effects of altitude, physical demands of the climb, and unpredictable weather all came to bear on Island Peak and Lobuche East. Whether shouldering the extra burden of a pack or tethering themselves to team members our guides were truly selfless throughout. When leaders serve they create an environment that builds trust.

“Climbing a mountain represents a chance to briefly free oneself of the small concerns of our common lives, to strip off nonessentials, to come down to the core of life itself. Food, shelter, and friends – these are the essentials, these plus faith and purpose and a deep and unrelenting determination.”  Mateo Cabello, Of Mountains and Men

“The first job of a leader—at work or at home—is to inspire trust.” Stephen M.R. Covey

What one action could you take today to build more trust as a leader?

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