Tackling Poverty and Climbing Mountains, in Chile and Beyond

Rodrigo Jordan, a management professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, is a world-class mountaineer. He has led, written about and filmed successful Chilean expeditions to Mount Everest, K2 and Antarctica, and has drawn on these experiences to found Vertical S.A., a company that uses outdoor education to teach leadership, teamwork and entrepreneurship. The related Fundación Vertical offers similar adventure learning for underprivileged children. In addition to being a former television executive and nationally known TV personality, Jordan was recently appointed chair of Chile’s National Poverty Foundation, the country’s most important non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to social development. Knowledge@Wharton offers an edited version of an interview with Jordan on leadership, as well as his climb earlier this year of Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest summit.


Wharton Leadership Digest: What first led you to mountain climbing?


Rodrigo Jordan: I was always drawn to nature. When my family went for vacations, they would spend their time on the beach while I would be climbing in the hills. Back in Santiago, our house was at the foot of San Cristobal hill, where I used to run around playing Cowboys and Indians. The first serious mountain I climbed, in the late 1970s, was a volcano in Chile called Guallatire. I took a mountaineering class at college, and that was our final exam.


WLD: Did you enjoy that first climb?


Jordan: The funny thing is I felt awful on summit day. I had a headache, stomach ache and I was vomiting — probably caused by high altitude. I remember the climbing instructor handing me a bag of chocolates to give me energy. I finally did make it to the summit, and I still felt terrible. But on the way down to the lower camps, with the view spread out in front of me, the experience seemed good. [It was] that sense of achievement, of overcoming difficulty.


WLD: Years later, you were standing on the summit of Mount Everest. How did that feel?


Jordan: We reached Everest in 1992. Thirteen years had passed since I climbed that first volcano in Chile. Many things had happened in that time — I had gotten married, I had children — and my perspective had changed. When I had reached the summit of Guallatire, I was young and I thought, “I’ve done it.” It was a selfish way of thinking. By the time I got to Everest — and we had two expeditions that failed before we finally succeeded in 1992 — I realized it was not just me on the summit. Yes, I was lucky to be on the team of three climbers who reached the top, but really it was the effort of so many people who made that possible.


It sounds like a very simple insight, but it’s true: You can’t accomplish anything on your own. Nothing. It always takes a team. If you think of an individual athletic star, like a tennis champion, he is also part of a team that includes his doctor and his coach. Even solitary artists, like Edgar Allen Poe, worked alone, but someone had to publish his books.


WLD: Can you teach teamwork? 


Jordan: I was just meeting with our Minister of Education about this. Our schools — primary schools, colleges — teach technical skills like biology, Spanish and math. We don’t teach the social skills you need to work on a team. Of course those experiences exist; students play on sports teams or join drama clubs. But after producing a play, no one takes the opportunity to ask, “How did we resolve our conflicts? Where did we succeed or fail?” It’s a simple thing, really. You don’t necessarily need to create new experiences. You just need to consciously focus on teamwork skills.


In soccer teams in our country, the captain of the team is the best player: He may be captain for many years. Why not have the captaincy rotate among players? Yes, maybe [you will end up with a captain] who doesn’t have the best technical skills. But at the end of the game or the season, the team can sit with the captain and ask, “Did he listen to our perspectives? How did he lead us towards our goal?”


When our group was hiking down from Everest in 1992, we said to one another: “Look what we did, working together…. There may have been things that bothered me, but I tolerated them, because I didn’t want to diminish our relationship.” It was a classic debriefing, something we do now with every group at Vertical. After Everest, we just did it intuitively.  


WLD: What social skills do people need to work well in a team?


Jordan: One scenario is very common. On any team, there’s always somebody who is shyer than the rest. If this happens among a group of kids at school, the quiet one will be teased. We have an expression in Chile — “to take someone up the swing.” That means in a tense situation, people take out the pressure on someone who seems weaker; they “push him up the swing.” The poor person on the swing can have a pretty hard time … but he or she isn’t able to talk about it. Meanwhile, the group doesn’t know how much that person is suffering.


This dynamic can be exacerbated in a mountaineering expedition or a competitive business setting: You’re tense, you’re uncomfortable and you push that negative feeling on someone else. It’s a subtle, unconscious process.


WLD: What’s the solution?


Jordan: Everybody feels they are on the swing at one point or another. Whether that is true or untrue, it doesn’t matter: That’s how the person feels. So when you’re on the swing, you have to speak up.


On our expeditions, we have a meeting at the end of each day. It’s after supper, over coffee. We talk about what we have done, what we will do tomorrow. That’s when you can speak up and say, “Everything’s fine, but I’m a little tired. Can you get me out of the swing for tomorrow?”


If the group is really working like a team, they won’t say, “Come on, it was just a couple of jokes.” No, they will say, “Okay, that’s how you feel. We respect that.” 


WLD:   It takes a lot of courage to stand up and say, “I’ve been having a hard time. Can you give me a break?” How do you open those channels of communication in a group?


Jordan: You need time together. When we’re forming a team for an expedition, we go out climbing together months in advance. We are not only training physically and technically, but also training as a team. When situations arise, the leader can say, “Guys, do you realize this is happening? How can we deal with it?” The team can come up with a system for handling conflicts. Because on the expedition we’re going to face avalanches, we’re going to face hardships — and we’re also going to face conflicts.


Usually nobody is thinking about human relations on a mountaineering expedition. People are concentrating on logistics and supplies and technical skills. But it’s one of the bullet points you need to deal with before the expedition starts.  


WLD: Do businesses put enough time into thinking about human relations?


Jordan: I don’t know about the U.S., because my main work is here in Latin America. But I can say in Latin America, nobody considers it an issue. My view is: Just as you have strategic plans for development, innovation, finance and marketing, you also need a strategic plan for your human resources.


WLD: What can businesses do to strengthen their teams?        


Jordan: At Vertical, we take people on retreats and put them in a totally different situation, away from their work setting. To deal with a new issue, it helps to be in a new environment.  


Camping outdoors offers neutral ground in terms of the organization. No one is boss, no one is secretary. Whatever prejudices are built into the group because of the organization they work in are forgotten. Confronting camping is the same for everybody. 


You can analyze issues as they come up because they are happening in an entertaining way when you are in the outdoors. Then comes the serious part: How are you going to apply what you learned here to your daily work?


WLD: How do you relate these experiences from mountaineering to the completely different challenge of tackling poverty in Chile?


Jordan: The immediate image that comes to your mind when you talk about poor people is their material situation: They don’t have housing or access to medical care or financial resources.


The National Poverty Foundation deals with capabilities. Rather than just providing food programs or housing programs, we help people grow capabilities so they can step out of their condition. We run large programs in very rural, very remote places, like Patagonia. If you’re thinking about installing capabilities more than satisfying material needs, you approach the operation in a different way than the classical top-down way, where you say, “I know what needs to be done, so I’ll hand it to you.”


This other way of thinking asks for a more level relationship: I have knowledge as an outsider coming in, and the community has its own knowledge. By respecting that knowledge on both sides, we increase the human capital that will allow the community to develop itself. In that relationship, social skills and teamwork are essential.


WLD: Why is teamwork important in this case?


Jordan: It’s just like when we sit with sherpas on a Himalayan expedition. There’s a cultural difference, an economic and social difference between us. But we have to work as a team if we want to get up the mountain. We the outsiders, you the insiders, we’re going to work as a team to install capabilities. And working as a team needs conflict resolution, negotiation and effective communications.


If I have technical knowledge, and I say, “I’m going to build you a house,” then I don’t need social skills. But if I’m going to help organize the community to think of a housing plan it can develop on its own — that’s something totally different.


WLD: Before we go, could you tell us about your expedition this year to climb Lhotse, the peak next to Mt. Everest?         


Jordan: We reached the summit on May 11. To me, it was an incredible expedition because we changed a paradigm.


We have always worked with the idea that a team of nine or ten climbers, with assistance from sherpas in this case, will help build the camps up the mountain. However, of these 10, only a select group of three or four will reach the summit. Leaving Santiago, we are all capable of climbing the peak, but you never know what’s going to happen: You might get ill or lose interest or not be chosen for whatever reason. Typically, a small group is chosen to make the summit.


But in this case as we confronted that final decision — we had established all the camps, we were ready for the summit push — everyone was in good shape, all 11 of us. I said, “Guys, it’s very hard for me to decide who is going to go. There are experienced climbers, for whom this would be their third or fourth 8,000-meter peak; there are younger guys for whom this would be their first one.”  


We started discussing it, and someone said, “Why don’t we all go?” The initial reaction was, “That’s impossible.” But we thought of a way: breaking up into two teams that would summit on consecutive days. That has been done before, but our group had never done it. It would require very high levels of tolerance because we would have to share our gear. The first group would leave their sleeping bags in the high camp for the second group to use, and the other sleeping bags would be at the lower camp. We had slept in our bags for 60 days without taking a shower, so the idea of sleeping in someone else’s bag was not a pleasant one.


Then we had four sherpas who really wanted to go. So now there were 15 of us. “This is crazy,” we said, “but let’s give it a shot.”


We split the team — seven in the first group and eight in the second group. And it worked.


It was a real experience for me. I led the first group, so I was on the summit on May 11th. But after I came down, I couldn’t relax. I had been to the summit — yes, marvelous — but it wouldn’t be over until the other group was successful. When the second group finally went up and came down, it was excellent.


WLD: What lesson did you take out of that experience?


JORDAN: The impossible is possible, provided the team is united behind it. Everyone must be willing to jump in and sacrifice and take the risk.


A previous version of this interview, conducted by Andrea Useem, appeared in the December issue of the Wharton Leadership Digest.

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