Mountains and Other Metaphors for Leadership

I have been an adventurer my whole life. From my early years riding horses hell-bent for election through the woods near my home, to becoming a guide for Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School in my 20’s, to fly fishing adventures with my dad in the Lamar River Valley in Wyoming, to sailing across the Atlantic and the Pacific—stretching myself, being in the wilderness, and working with others to achieve things beyond my own perceived ability have been part of how I roll for as long as I can remember.

My career as a wilderness guide and addiction counselor with youth in the 80’s led to an esteemed career using adventure as a catalyst for teams and individuals for companies large and small through the leaders in the industry, including my contributions to a book that summarizes some of the most powerful best practices for leveraging the profound impact of adventure to leaders and teams, Adventure in Business.

Suffice it to say, I get it.  Feats of daring, physical adventure, adversity, and achievement lend themselves well to metaphors related to leadership.

Indeed, in our practice today, we infuse programs with adventure whenever we can as a way of providing a unique, visceral experience for people, which, in my opinion, is the most effective way to learn.

Nonetheless, I find myself tiring of the popularity of keynote speeches, inspirational books about physical extremes, mountaineering, and other dramatic exploits in the business setting. I in no way mean to discount or diminish the work of my colleagues out there doing this kind of speaking, but at the same time, here are my top 10 list of reasons why extreme physical achievement is really NOT the same as the complex, myriad challenges of senior leaders today:

1. Physical prowess is irrelevant

One’s strength, endurance, and agility, while very lovely to possess, do not in any way matter when it comes to strategy, relationship, innovation, tolerating ambiguity and connection—which are essential traits to leading well. Great leaders embody these traits regardless of their athletic gifts or shortcomings.

2. Long-term fortitude is different than short term effort

Training for an extreme accomplishment is almost always a relatively short-term gain. Sure, it takes mental dedication, planning, and fortitude to plan for an extended expedition to a remote location and ascend to dramatic heights or cross vast deserts, but these are small achievements compared to the long-term challenges facing business and organizational leaders today. It seems shallow to compare the effort and nuanced leadership skills required to create a business that thrives year over year, employs people in meaningful ways, manages externalities responsibly, and reaches mission and/or profit expectations year over year for 10, 15, 20 or more years, to the effort required to reach a summit after a few months or even several years of focus and dedication.

3. Leaders can’t always pick all A players

Inspiring followership for expeditions with like-minded, co-committed, self-funded, and equally skilled colleagues is really nothing at all like inspiring followership with diverse, fairly compensated, varying skill leveled employees in a global environment. Most companies can’t recruit and retain the “A” team at every level and role in their company, but leaders must push forward anyway.

4. There is never really only one summit

In business, or in any organization, there is rarely a single summit or a milestone that represents the success of the whole effort and after which everyone dissipates and goes home. In organizations, the summits are myriad, often unexpected, and relentless. Often, one obstacle to a business goal morphs into the next, with the constant and never-ending symphony of dramatic ups and downs in which no one ever really feels “done” but instead, are always looking forward to the next accomplishment, milestone, or growth point. In expeditions, when it is over, it is over, and members return to their comfortable homes and their own work worlds, dissipating from the potent focus and effort their “Summit” required.

 5. A singularity of focus is a rare luxury

Training for an extreme event takes a complete dedication to it for a short period of time. It requires the right food, the right sleep, the right combination of endurance and strength work, while the rest of life often goes by the wayside as extreme adventurers dedicate themselves to the task at hand.  In business leadership, most people are carrying out herculean leadership efforts day in and day out while also maintaining their lives of kid care, community, personal health, and logistics, without the privilege of full-time dedication to a singular, worthy goal.

6. Partnerships over long time periods are different

Most of us can rally and get along with a few people for a short period of time. On an expedition, people are launched into intimate connection for the express purpose of the adventure at hand, and must get along and communicate well for the period of the expedition. After that, they may or may not ever see one another again. In real leader-land, relationships take place over an unspecified, but usually long period of time, and often are not chosen. Customers, partners, employees and peers may or may not be people one desires to be in positive relationship with, but due to skill sets, legacy decisions, and the nature of business, we have to work with people we don’t groove with, all the time, potentially with no end game.

7. Wilderness is easy inspiration

Most business board rooms, and the airplanes in which senior leaders must fly to get there, are neither as spiritual, nor as inspiring, as the wilderness, whether desert, river, mountain, or tundra. Leaders who can find true inspiration in the making of products, or the offering of services, in the dark, dreary, mundane and tiredly similar halls of global business, are really awe-inspiring.  Almost all of us feel terrific under a night sky or a sunny mid-day moment, but after a two-day meeting in a room with no windows? Whoa.

8. Distractions are real

Extreme adventure is almost always distraction-free. No cell phones, no Internet, no kids, no traffic, no collection calls.  When we go adventuring, we shut this all down, delegate to others to carry the water for us, and focus on, again, the achievement at hand. Day-to-day leaders wake up every day to a million little paper cuts distracting them from the focus and clarity that gets sh** done, and these leaders proceed anyway.

9. There is scared and then there is more scared

The fear is totally different. I know this from experience.  The fear that I will freeze to death, or fall from a great height, or in a seasick stupor fall overboard, is real and visceral. But it is nothing like the gnawing, all-encompassing anxiety I see senior leaders face every day of disappointing one stakeholder or another.  Morning sweats of “Will the shareholders see the big picture?”, “Will I have to fire someone?”, “Will our operation have to move?”, “Should we recall this product?”,  “Will I fail to lead well?” is a pressure few know and many actively avoid. Being consistently responsible for multiple, complex, diverse stakeholders, year over year, when they may feel privately anxious, insecure, and full of self-doubt is a different but potent realm of fear.

10. Gear won’t help you

Top of the line gear, while nice, does not really matter. In mountaineering or blue water sailing, polar crossings, or desert treks, having the right equipment can make or break a leader’s success faster than almost any other variable. Investing in the right gear is part of a good expedition leader’s true wisdom. In business though, no amount of fancy trappings can ensure that a company will succeed. There are literally dozens of examples every day of businesses that had strong investment, great locations, unique innovations, and deluxe machinery/computers, who have fizzled out due to lack of leadership, broken partnerships or failed customer focus.

In a nutshell, I love the metaphor, and I have used it repeatedly with clients in coaching and leadership training. And I encourage all of us to keep adventuring in a wide variety of ways—it stretches us, it inspires us, and it just creates health.  But for companies seeking real inspiration, I challenge you to find speakers and assign books that address the nuanced, complex, real challenges of organizational life, rather than forcing the metaphor of extreme athletes to apply to all.

Jim Morris