Nine Observations on Leadership From North America’s Highest Peak
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.
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 he and the assistant eventually found some spare tent material, cut out a patch, and taped over the hole. No doubt, this guy was someone you want on your side in a tricky situation.
Make clear right away who’s boss. From the first minutes we gathered at the hotel in Anchorage, Riquelme made one thing clear—safety of the group was his responsibility, and his alone. Even though this kind of climb attracts strong personalities, safety judgments were never going to be the product of consensus or debate among strong-willed individuals. The mountain can be deceiving, the weather can be dangerous, and that was why we had hired a veteran guide. Riquelme made clear that he was more than happy to explain his reasoning around decisions after they’ve been made, but the inmates weren’t going to run this asylum. If he didn’t think it was safe to go for the summit, then we weren’t going to go for the summit. Period.
Once the authority was established, Riquelme was able to use it to his advantage. In one instance, he led us on a descent in the midst of a snowstorm, when many of us were cold and irritable. Yet no one stopped to shout, ‘Hey, Richard, think we ought to turn around and go back to camp?” which could have provoked a mini-mutiny. Instead, he took the first steps through the fresh fallen snow, following a route which he knew by heart. We got through that tense stretch, the storm lifted, and we all had some laughs as a group.
Be gentle and persuasive, not domineering. One of the most sensitive tasks Riquelme had to handle on the trip was an issue with a climber that suffered from acute mountain sickness (AMS). This person—a sincere, motivated guy climbing to raise awareness of human trafficking—struggled for several days in a row. Long past the point when others would have quit, he insisted he could continue. After witnessing several bad days in a row, I became concerned about the safety of the situation as we ventured onto the highest and toughest part of the mountain.
Riquelme wasn’t blind, but he had to proceed carefully. He had to balance a couple important considerations—one to the group, one to the individual. Clearly, group safety comes first, and a person suffering from acute mountain sickness could fall and pose a serious threat to the group. But he also had to be considerate of the individual, who worked hard to get there. Order the person off the mountain, and you’re inviting bitterness and second-guessing. Do nothing and you’re asking for trouble.
After a series of talks in which Riquelme shared his experience on the mountain, this person came to his own sensible decision that he needed to stop at 14,000 feet, while the rest of the team continued. It was heartbreaking for him, but the right call. We ended up re-uniting as a full team on the descent, and celebrating together when we were done.
Run a tight ship. Riquelme was no drill sergeant, but he did believe in instilling sharpness and discipline in our conduct. Little things, like letting 10-minute breaks drag to 15 minutes weren’t allowed. When it was time to get the team moving, he’d holler “3 minutes” as the signal to take your last swig of water, and get your backpack on and ready to move. Those little things might not seem like much, but they can add up quickly, and turn a 12-hour summit day into a brutal 18 or 20-hour team odyssey. All the risks of climbing—rockfalls, avalanches, frostbite, fatigue, storms—start to increase when you’re on the course longer than necessary. The message was simply this: Pay attention to doing the small things right and we’ll be better off in the end.
Don’t over-communicate. This was one source of frustration among a few of the climbers. Riquelme, a native of Chile who speaks Spanish, German, and English, didn’t reveal much about his thought processes on strategic decisions until after they had been made.
We understood him just fine for the most part, but still, communication wasn’t his greatest strength. One climber, a business executive clearly used to carefully planning out his days and weeks, kept up a constant stream of questions about ‘what’s for breakfast tomorrow?’ or ‘what time will we be waking up tomorrow?’ or ‘should I wear my mittens or my heavy gloves tomorrow?’
Riquelme was wise enough to not get sucked into answering all these kinds of questions, especially while he was still gathering information that would shape his decisions. If the weather was good enough for a push ahead, then we’d need a high-calorie breakfast, for example. He knew that if he walked through a bunch of scenarios, he’d run the risk of being second-guessed, or just wasting time explaining minutiae. His policy seemed to be this—when you have something to say, say it clearly, succinctly, and consistently.
Keep it light. For all his focus and discipline, Riquelme also had a great sense of humor, and made sure to provide plenty of time for comic relief, especially when the whole team came together at night for dinner in the cook tent. When you’re in an extreme environment like Denali, facing all kinds of risks, it’s easy to get wound up with the seriousness of it all. Just like people who do serious work on new cancer treatments, you have to joke around and laugh at yourself along the way.
Riquelme told lots of funny jokes to keep us all loose. Have you ever heard the one about the top four priorities of a mountain guide? No. 1 is lookin’ good. No. 2 is feelin’ good. No. 3, once again, lookin’ good. Fourth? Safety.
Live in the moment. In mountaineering, some people obsess about the summit. It’s the ultimate goal. Reach it, and most people will say you’ve succeeded. But Riquelme, an admirer of Harvard University happiness researcher Dan Gilbert, talked little about the summit along the way. Instead, he led us to focus more on each single day’s activities, and enjoying living in the moment.
Partly, it can be a little overwhelming to think about getting to 20,320 feet when you’re down at 7,000 feet. But more than that, you’ll miss many of the pleasures along the way if you’re focused too much on the destination. By living in the moment, we were probably happier than we would have been if we fantasized constantly about the summit in the far distance. Turns out, we reached the ultimate goal, and it was a thrill. But the process of getting there—and seeing the million ways this ship stayed on course—was what really made this a truly great life experience.