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Want to Be a Great Leader? Act Like a Rock Climber

It’s that time of year when all the crazies (meant with the greatest respect!) pull out their gear and hit the walls of rock most of us just spend time admiring. Our local rock climbers also admire the beauty of the rock wall, but then they attack it. It’s easy to admire the grace, athleticism and courage of the rock climber. But there is much more we can learn from them if we peel back the onion a little. We can learn principles of great leadership.

One of the world’s greatest rock climbers, Alex Honnold, summed it up best when it comes to the spirit of rock climbing, “Plenty of time when you’re like, ‘Oh, we can’t go on anymore.’ You can go on; you just don’t want to anymore because it’s uncomfortable or you’re afraid it’s going to become uncomfortable. Can you continue? Yeah, you can continue. You may as well keep going until you can’t anymore.”

Great leaders do hard things. They do the hard things most people don’t because of fear of being uncomfortable. Because of fear of failing or looking silly. What else can rock climbers teach us about leadership?

Embrace being a “gumby.” A gumby is a semi-derogatory term for a beginning climber. But climbers know that everyone is a gumby at some point. Yet, they move forward. You can identify gumbies because they will have a lot of extraneous things they don’t need hanging from their harness. As climbers move out of the gumby phase, they learn that they should only have the equipment they need in the key movements.

Everyone is a new leader at some point. Even those who have been in leadership positions for a while but realize they have not really been leading at all. Eventually a leader learns to leave extraneous things behind and focus only on what they need in the key moments. 

What else?

Thorough and methodical preparation. Rock climbers exhibit meticulous attention to detail. They check routes, knots, back-up knots, belaying gear, each other’s gear, they appropriately pare down gear … before the climb begins. They lay out their ropes as best they can before they start to remove tangles. As Alex Honnold notes, you may still get a tangled rope from time to time, so you have to manage as they arise.

As a leader, you can only effectively manage a “tangled rope” if you have done the work, the meticulous work, of preparation beforehand. Tangled ropes can only be dealt with easily if a leader has done the work to ensure there won’t be a tangled rope. In reality, the rock climber and the leader know tangled ropes are inevitable. But they are generally manageable with thorough and methodical preparation before the action starts.

There’s more?

Greatness has to start somewhere, and it starts without ego and with good, old-fashioned hard work. Another iconic rock climber, Tommy Caldwell, worked tirelessly to set a standard of greatness: climbing the Dawn Wall. For those not familiar, the Dawn Wall is a route up the southeastern face of El Capitan. It is generally considered the hardest rock-climbing route in Yosemite National Park as well as the hardest big wall climb in the world. It took Caldwell 19 days to climb the Dawn Wall. This, after seven years of climbing and exploring El Capitan and one year on the Dawn Wall itself. At the time it was considered a monumental accomplishment.

That is, until Alex Honnold completed the same climb two and a half years later in three hours and fifty-six minutes. And, he did it free solo, aka without ropes or other protective equipment.

The work and lack of ego Caldwell displayed to be the first to climb the Dawn Wall speaks for itself. That is what it took to establish a high bar of greatness. What is more impressive about Caldwell, however, is that he was Honnold’s main confidant in Honnold’s quest to free climb the Dawn Wall. Caldwell was not concerned about Honnold upstaging him. He was concerned about helping Honnold upstage him. Caldwell set a standard of greatness and then helped someone else do better. Can anyone say “great leadership?”

There is much more we can learn from rock climbers about leadership. But we’ll end with “leave no trace” summed up by both Honnold and Caldwell. Leave no trace generally means that when you leave the place that you are climbing it should be in the same, or better, state as when you arrived. The outdoor climbing environment needs to be viewed like you are visiting someone else’s home. But they take the principle even further. According to Caldwell, whenever you are a beginner at anything, you should strive to achieve the sort of moral and ethical standards that the people who have been doing that activity have established over a lot of years. And, the leave no trace principles are a sort of guidance to achieve those moral and ethical standards.

Great leaders leave no trace. They quietly make things better. They don’t need to have their presence known because their actions speak for themselves. How they lead other people to do great things speaks for itself.

In summary, if you want to be a great leader, act like a rock climber!

Errol Doebler is a former Navy SEAL platoon commander, FBI terrorism investigator and founder of his leadership consulting firm, “Ice Cold Leader.” He can be contacted at Hello@Icecoldleader.com

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