A Lofty Take on Leadership: Mountain Climbing and Managing CompaniesPublished: September 24, 2003 in Knowledge@Wharton
People climb mountains to conquer them. Sometimes, though, they find that the mountains end up exerting an influence over them of a kind they had never anticipated. This influence has nothing to do with glamour and achievement and everything to do with humility and humanity.
Wharton management professor Michael Useem, director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, and the business people who accompanied him to the Himalayas on “leadership treks” have used the mountains to learn about the qualities it takes to oversee both expeditions and companies. In turn, they have been deeply moved by the graciousness of the residents who live near the roof of the world. Useem has just published a book using experiences in mountain climbing to describe how business leaders reach their summits. He and others also have been involved in an effort to give something back to the young people of Nepal by raising money to build a dormitory for students.
“I had my first taste of mountains at age 15,” says Useem. “I was in Kashmir, India, on a family visit. I hiked to 12,000 feet. Coming from lower Michigan, which is totally flat, and then seeing this earth with such vertical dimensions, the lure of the mountains became irresistible. I have done a lot of rock and mountain climbing in the years since, but it was not until 1998 that I began to use mountaineering as a way to analyze management and leadership skills. That was when I made the first Wharton Leadership Trek to Mount Everest. The book is an outgrowth of that thinking.”
In Upward Bound: Nine Original Accounts of How Business Leaders Reached Their Summits, the Wharton researcher and two co-editors – his son Jerry Useem, a senior writer at Fortune, and venture capitalist Paul Asel – have collected stories written by executives who relate their experiences as climbers to the challenges and hazards of business.
Michael Useem sees strong, practical parallels between what it takes to lead an expedition and manage business organizations. “The book draws on mountaineering and rock climbing as a metaphor for management. It especially focuses on leadership decisions – what it means to be the leader of a climbing expedition and how that bears on what it means to be a company leader.”
Useem got the idea for the book a couple of summers ago when he was climbing Mount Adams, a peak not far from Mount Rainier in Washington state, with one of his daughters, Susan Useem, and Paul Asel.
“It was a three-day climb. We were at a high campsite, a spectacular setting. We were musing on how our own experience and the experiences of people like Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay and others had so many implications for how you should think about management.” Hillary, the New Zealand explorer, and Tenzing, a Sherpa climber, in 1953 became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
One of the book’s chapters is written by Jim Collins, the author of the bestsellers Built to Last and Good to Great, and an experienced rock climber who started scaling mountains when he was a teen-ager.
Collins describes how people seeking to achieve a goal should focus on what he calls “fallure,” not on failure. Fallure is a bit of wordplay derived from a decision that rock climbers make if they know they cannot complete the route they have chosen for a climb. They allow themselves to fall, knowing that the bolts attached to the side of the rock face through which their climbing ropes are threaded will break their fall. In fallure, a climber still fails to get up the route, but he or she pushes to the ultimate limit. Fallure means a climber made a commitment to make the ascent, despite the odds.
“What Jim is saying is you want to push as high and as aggressively as you can, and even if you fall off, that’s okay,” Useem says. It’s like “the start-up entrepreneur who wants to be aggressive, who should be aggressive, and if he or she is too timid they won’t get to the place where they ultimately can be enormously successful. But to do that, you have to face the possibility you may indeed fall off. In rock climbing, as in business, you’ve got to be able to take managed risks to build a company.”
Another chapter was written by Stacy Allison, owner of a contracting company that renovates old homes and the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Allison recounts the ramifications of a critical decision made by fellow climber Scott Fischer during an earlier expedition up Everest. Fischer, co-owner of a guide service, had been the leader of the expedition from the start. But he later announced that while he would retain the position of leader for official purposes during the journey to base camp, he did not want to make decisions for the group once everyone was on the mountain. He declared that everyone would share in leadership duties.
“With no leader, personal agendas took over,” Useem says. “People did things when they felt like it and the expedition pretty quickly fell apart. Fortunately no one was killed. The main point is that leadership really does make a difference. A lack of leadership reinforces the argument that you need leaders to keep people working together toward common objectives.”
Thinking Like a CEO
In his own chapter, Useem writes about the need for managers in all organizations to think about the roles they play and the decisions they make as if they were expedition guides or CEOs.
Useem describes a 2002 expedition up Cotopaxi, a massive, active volcano in Ecuador, which, at 19,347 feet, is nearly a mile higher than any peak in the Rocky Mountains. There were 15 climbers divided into several different rope teams. One of the climbers on a five-person rope team, Jamie Hammond, began to suffer from altitude sickness as the party neared the summit around 6 a.m., having begun their ascent at midnight. If it lasts long enough and the affected climber cannot get to a lower altitude, altitude sickness can be fatal. But Hammond knew that if he decided to go back down the mountain too soon, everyone else would be forced to return with him and their chances of reaching the top would be thwarted. He also realized that everyone’s chances of making the top would be equally jeopardized if he climbed higher and his illness worsened. Everyone had already invested many days in training and travel and Hammond did not want to ruin their trip.
Thinking like a leader, he made a decision aimed at what he deemed the best interests of the entire group: He e He would climb as high as possible before the pain became unbearable in the hope of finding a protected nook where his guide could untie him and leave him alone temporarily. As fate would have it, such an alcove was found 800 feet below the summit. Hammond, now untied, rested in the alcove out of the wind, 18,300 feet above sea level, overlooking the jungles of Ecuador. The other four climbers, along with the guide, stayed together and made it to the summit about 7:30 a.m. All told, Hammond was alone for an hour. The team successfully made their descent and Hammond began to feel better when he had descended to 15,000 feet.
Useem likens Hammond’s decision to that made by Sherron Watkins, the famous whistle-blower in the Enron scandal. “Watkins had gone to see Enron CEO Ken Lay in August 2001 to warn him about accounting improprieties. Unfortunately, Lay didn’t listen but Watkins was thinking like a CEO. She knew that those now famous ‘special purpose entities’ that Andrew Fastow was creating were life threatening to the company and probably illegal. Of course, if Watkins had thought only of herself, she would have resigned and avoided the whole situation. But she thought like a CEO, thinking about what the company needed, and took the message to the CEO.”
Several chapters stress that managers often must subordinate themselves to the collective interest of the group.
“One of the overriding themes is you need enormous self-confidence to be in a leadership position; it’s stressful, risky and often unpleasant,” according to Useem. “But, on the other hand, if you’re given to too much hubris, you’re going to step off a cliff. That was true of Al Dunlap, the cost-cutting CEO at Scott Paper and Sunbeam known as ‘Chainsaw Al,’ and Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco: They took such large risks they put their own companies and careers at risk; that’s when true disaster can strike. The world of mountaineering can instruct one to be confident. You have to be confident to face those risks. But you have to have technical skills and be well prepared to know what you’re going to do. If you’re confident about the business and you don’t take excessive risks to build it and don’t think of yourself as invulnerable, as in mountaineering and rock climbing, you should be fine.”
A Ceremony in Nepal
On the most recent Wharton trek to the Himalayas, in May of 2003, Useem and his fellow hikers attended a dedication ceremony marking the construction of the student hostel near the public school in the Nepalese village of Khumjung. The new hostel will accommodate 10 secondary-school students (grades six and up) from the distant village of Phortse. Without the additional sleeping quarters, the 10 students would never be able to proceed to secondary school because the school is too far from home – a four-to five-hour walk each way – to permit daily travel.
The extension was built with money donated by many of the 100 people who have taken part in the Wharton treks. So far, more than $33,000 has been raised. Some $15,500 was used to construct the extension; the rest will be used to help allay the students’ living expenses. The fundraising effort will continue. Additional donations will be for a variety of purposes, including the hiring of a cook.
“We wanted to give something back,” says Janet Stark, a New Yorker who took part in Wharton’s 2001 leadership trek and is helping to coordinate the fundraising campaign. “This hostel was something that was really needed. Kids finish elementary school in Phortse but there is no higher education [there] and they can’t just hail a cab” to get to Khumjung.
Stark describes the 2001 expedition as “a very emotional trip” in which she came to admire the Sherpas who carry the equipment for the climbers. “When you trek through Nepal, you go from village to village, and the people make your stay an incredible experience. We really got to know the people who were with us. What we left behind was housing that allowed a small group of children to continue their education. It was a way for me to give back to a country that provided me with an incredible adventure and an incredible learning experience.”
Anne Libby, another trekker and fundraiser, says: “No Westerner could travel in that part of the world and not say, ‘How can I help?’ It’s a very poor country.”
Libby, a principal in a small business in lower Manhattan called Yoga Connection, has made three trips with Useem to the Himalayas. She acknowledges a tendency on the part of Westerners to romanticize the people in that part of the world, ascribing to them a kind of serene perfection that no one, Easterner or Westerner, could possess. She notes that the people of Nepal desire the same creature comforts as anyone in Europe or the United States. Nonetheless, she was moved by the kindness and consideration they had for one another, something quite unlike what she is accustomed to in large American cities.
“The people of the area made a very huge impact on me,” says Libby. “They greet each other with the word namaste. It’s a Sanskrit term. The way it was defined to me was, ‘The divine spirit in me honors the divine spirit in you.’ You can be walking mountains in a thousand dollars worth of gear and see a young porter in a torn University of Michigan T-shirt in flip-flops who has 70 pounds worth of stuff on his back. The stuff could be Coca-Cola or Pringles potato chips, things tourists need further up the mountain. Namaste: Hello wealthy Westerner. That one word very much made me think. I thought, ‘What if we said this [to one another] in New York?’”
She continues: “They want their kids to go to school. They want running water. They want TV. Many want the same things we want. Yet there is a quality of how people approach one another that’s about caring for and respecting one another, regardless of what station of life that person may be in. There is a way the people care for one another that touched me.”
The dedication ceremony in the school’s auditorium was attended by teachers, members of the school board and about 100 pupils. After a school official made some remarks, Useem and a few of his fellow hikers did the same. This was followed by a round of traditional Sherpa dances that the school committee had organized for the hikers’ benefit. “It was a wonderful moment to witness the ceremony and see the new structure with a plaque saying ‘Wharton School,’” Useem recalls.
The Wharton trekkers have several other projects they wish to help fund in the months and years to come. Among other things, they want to try to raise money for the nuns of Deboche Convent in Nepal and for construction of teachers’ quarters and the support of monks and teachers at the Tengboche Shedra, a monks’ college also in the Himalayas.
The Wharton participants chose these projects after discussions with several nonprofit organizations that raise funds for worthy causes in Tibet, Nepal and India – the American Himalayan Foundation, the Himalayan Trust and the Mountain Institute. The Himalayan Trust was founded by Sir Edmund Hillary, who remains involved in charitable work in South Asia today, 50 years after he and Tenzing astonished the world with their ascent of the 29,035-foot Everest.
Libby finds Hillary’s devotion to the region and its people inspirational and a manifestation of one of the essential, if often overlooked, components of leadership. “Hillary said, ‘How can I help you and serve you?’ That, to me, shows the connection between leadership and altruism. The function of a leader is, “How can I serve you?’”