I recently shared how mountain climbing related to leadership in that business teams are similar to climbing teams: we “clip-in” to the rope which ties us together and makes us responsible for each other’s welfare. If one team member falls, the rest of the team clipped-in to the rope can save them. There is a famous story about one climber who saved an entire team. A lead climber on an expedition slipped on an icy assent which threw one climber after another into a deadly “avalanche of people” until a single alert member of the team slammed his axe into the ice, secured himself to it and became the anchor that stopped the fall and saved everyone on the climbing team who was clipped-in to the rope.
Nanda Devi (photo above) is a stunning mountain in India. While making it to the top of Mount Everest earns a badge of honor among climbers and oohs and ahhs from friends, conquering the more challenging peaks such as K2 and Nanda Devi earns the deepest respect among the small world of expert climbers.
One such group of climbers included a man named Willi Unsoeld. His well-known and respected climbing team lived in Seattle and often practiced on nearby Mt. Rainer in the Cascade mountains. When he and his wife were blessed with a daughter they didn’t name her Whitney, Ranier or even Everest.
They named her Nanda Devi.
Nanda Devi grew-up around elite climbers and learned of the triumphs and challenges associated with climbing. When she was 22, she announced her desire to climb Nanda Devi – the mountain for which she was named. This stirred Willi’s soul even as he knew she would need to be surrounded by a strong team.
I read the story of the climb and to summarize it, an elite team was assembled from among Willi’s friends to help Nanda Devi achieve her dream. Somewhat irrationally, the team decided no one would be the absolute leader for this particular climb – they would be a peer-group of the elite. From the beginning, the leadership by committee disagreed on everything from climbing approach to the food that would be carried. No one took control, instead team members made their own decisions as everyone wanted a “mellow climb” without an overbearing atmosphere. Bad decision. The climb was also scheduled at a poor time of year simply because one team member wanted to wait for the school year to end. Even worse decision. The lack of strong leadership violated the first and most important rule of climbing: On every assent, regardless of team skill, experience or personalities, someone needs to be at the “head of the rope” first to plan the journey and then to make the tough calls on the climb itself. Everyone on the team must defer to the leader, especially when they are on the mountain.
The team met tough weather from the beginning of the climb as they moved up from the lower camps. The situation turned worse when Nanda Devi became ill with altitude sickness followed by an apparent abdominal infection. Such is not terribly uncommon in climbing. One solution is to go back down the mountain to a lower camp, recuperate and resume the climb. If the condition is too severe, a climber can be evacuated from lower camps by helicopter. The leader is often required to make these tough decisions. Why? To summit the worlds great mountains is a huge achievement and many brave climbers eager to reach the summit often push past their health problems because “they have come this far.” Such risky choices often prove foolish – even deadly. Leaders must step in and make the call when desire and logic are in conflict.
As Nanda Devi’s condition worsened day by day, it became clear that she should descend to a lower camp and be evacuated. Tragically, none of the elite climbers including her father, wanted to be “the one” to tell her to go down the mountain and delay achieving her dream. They proceeded to talk each other out of a decision they all knew was desperately needed. Nanda Devi tried to be courageous and asked that they continue despite her health. The team pushed forward and the unthinkable happened. Nanda Devi’s condition very rapidly deteriorated and she died just below the summit. She was buried by her father on the mountain that carried her name.
Nanda Devi Usoeld died not because of poor training, not because they took the wrong route, not because equipment failed and not because of sudden weather – and all of those things take the lives of expert climbers every year. No, Nanda Devi was killed by a lack of clear leadership before the climb even started.
Relationships among the team were fractured as men who had once trusted each other with their lives on the world’s most challenging peaks offered conflicting explanations. It would take 10 years but eventually each one admitted, albeit reluctantly, that their collective failure to elect a single leader for the climb meant they ALL were responsible for the death of Nanda Devi Usoeld. A failure of leadership resulted in tragedy.
Business is not usually about life or death situations. Yes, there are some examples – such as in emergency rooms where the lead doctor MUST direct the trauma team and make life-saving decisions on critically injured patients. If you know the story of the Space Shuttle Challenger, then you know that a lack of leadership among multiple experts who had clear evidence in front of them (but pressured each other to keep the shuttle program “running on time”) caused the greatest tragedy in the history of the US Space program.
So what conclusions can be applied to your business? In simplest terms, the failure to lead can kill a team, business or project – sometimes before it begins.
Here are my 5 keys to ensure clear leadership:
- It must be clear who is leading.
Ambiguity destroys team dynamics and kills momentum.
- Leaders must look forward.
Leaders must watch for obstacles and point the way.
- Leaders must make the decisions.
Seeking input or consensus along the way in consultation with experienced team members is fine – but this must not delay decisions or cause overthinking.
- Decisions must be clear and direct.
Leaders who make ambiguous decisions are not really making decisions.
- Leaders must ensure the team is “clipped-in.”
Commitment is critical and must be demanded by the leader – this is not the same as blind loyalty.
Those 5 points apply to new leaders every bit as much as seasoned executives – in small companies or major corporations. When mentoring new and seasoned leaders, I often share the story of Nanda Devi Usoeld. While you may not be climbing a mountain, or making life and death decisions in an ER or the military, you are definitely seeking the exhilaration of success and clear leadership is where every journey starts.