Nine Observations on Leadership From North America’s Highest Peak

7/8/13Follow @xconomy

People are always striving to develop their leadership skills, or to find a leader worth following. But sometimes the trick is recognizing when you’re in the presence of strong leadership, and learning from it.

Your normal BioBeat will return to this space next week, but lately I’ve been fixated on absorbing leadership lessons for business from my recent 21-day climbing expedition on Alaska’s Denali, the highest peak in North America. (See the photo essay here).

I didn’t know what to expect last month when I walked into a hotel in Anchorage, AK to meet the lead guide for this 11-man expedition, Richard Riquelme, a native of Santiago, Chile. I suspect my fellow climbers would say something similar. While I was joined on this trip by a couple of lifelong friends, our full group was put together at random by the American Alpine Institute guide service. We knew that Riquelme was a mountain gear expert, on his seventh Denali expedition. Clearly, we were all going to get to know each other quite well over the coming weeks, for better or worse.

As luck would have it, I came away three weeks later inspired by Riquelme’s wise leadership—especially under pressure. I was also convinced that some of his principles, really just a bunch of common sense ideas, can be usefully applied in lots of environments away from the mountains.

Here are the key things I took home:

One minute, you’re the hero, the next you could be the zero. This was a catchphrase Riquelme laid on us early. At first, I thought, “Yeah, right, I’ve put in the work. I’ve been climbing for 10 years. I’m in shape. Somebody else will be the zero.”

Riquelme knew most of us were confident, but he knew more about what we were about to encounter: The mountain is formidable. It’s good to be confident, but not overconfident. Everyone had their good and bad days. Be empathetic, and helpful, to your teammates during their low moments. Chances are, you’ll need their help, or their patience, at some point.

Richard Riquelme of American Alpine Institute, at Camp 14 on Denali's West Buttress

My zero moment came on the descent from high camp when my right crampon—the spiky boot attachment that allows for safe footholds on sheer ice—came loose. This came while we were going down a 50-degree slope, during a whiteout snowstorm, as we were attached to a fixed rope line. I needed to yell for the whole rope team to stop and wait for at least 10 minutes, which felt like an hour. I balanced myself and my heavy backpack on one leg, held onto the rope line with my left hand, and re-laced the crampon with the right hand. I’ll never forget the stress, and the support I got from my teammates. One of them channeled Riquelme’s earlier advice, assuring the team at one point that I was almost done, and ready to get the ropes moving again.

Be resourceful. On a long and difficult journey, surprising things happen. Mistakes will be made. What matters is how you recover and move ahead.

For me, a potentially big problem emerged at 11,200 feet. I was enthusiastically chopping with my ice axe into the glacier to smooth out a place for our tent. Then, all of a sudden—PING!—the head of my axe broke in half (which says something about how hard the ice was). That could have been a serious complication, because you can’t safely climb a mountain without an axe to stop yourself from falling. We didn’t carry spares, so I thought I’d need to borrow one from another climber who may have gotten sick or injured and couldn’t continue.

Riquelme saw a better way. He took the axe into his tent and went to work. He came up with what he called a “MacGyver” solution, in which he took a broken tent stake, cut it in half, and wrapped it tight with athletic tape to replace the broken back half of the axe head (the “adze”). Good enough. We went on as a team, without skipping a beat, because of this creative solution.

Be poised under pressure. An obvious one, but easier said than done. On one of the first nights in our group cook tent, Riquelme’s poise was tested. An assistant guide accidentally started a grease fire in a frying pan, which blasted a basketball-sized hole through the tent roof. Thinking fast, the assistant extinguished the fire by tossing the pan out the door into the snow.

A second later, the assistant guide looked to Riquelme a bit sheepishly, surely wondering whether he was in trouble, or at least what to do next. Riquelme’s body language was calm, as if he had seen this a million times before. He could have yelled at the assistant, or let some irritation show. Instead, he said, “We’ll fix it. Don’t worry” in a soft, matter-of-fact voice. I’m not sure Riquelme knew instantly how to fix such a gaping hole right away, but … Next Page »

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  • Bill Ghormley

    Wow, Luke!
    What an experience — what great takeaways!
    Thank you for taking us with you (;->
    Welcome back —
    Bill

  • http://thenextelement.wordpress.com/ scientre

    Enjoyed the last one – live in the moment. Whether Denali or drug development, focusing on the summit can be all consuming.

  • BiotechStockResearch

    A most excellent essay.

  • J. Thomas Ranken

    Great piece(s)!

  • Rich Asiodche

    Sounds like a great experience!