Leadership at High Altitudes
  • Jayne McQuillan

Leadership at High Altitudes

Updated: Jan 9, 2019



It seems that every day I come across situations in which leadership has failed and where the ramifications of that failed leadership has had devastating consequences.  Now, I'm not saying that anyone is a perfect leader, but understanding your limitations, sharing those limitations, and surrounding yourself with those team members who can fill the gaps, is critical to overall success.


I just finished reading the book, High Altitude Leadership by Chris Warner and Don Schmincke, which teaches about leadership success through the experiences of climbing some of the world's most forbidding mountain peaks.


"It would be a shame to be born a man but die a CEO." (Warner)


This statement raises a significant question for all of us.  Will you lose your true self in your quest to become great?  Lose yourself, and you have nothing left.  Great leaders don't seek to conquer the great goals; these are the results of their conquering themselves.  (Warner)


Now most of us have never climbed a mountain that had the potential of being the last thing we did, but the impact of leadership principles are never more real than in life or death situations.  So, what are the traps that we as leaders fall into?


  • Fear of Death - Now most of our decisions aren't literally life or death, but they may be life or death of the business.  When fear enters, individuals and teams tend to freeze, or stop.  When this happens decisions are avoided, there is no longer risk taking, and resistance to change or resisting change in your own leadership style can occur.  So what should we do as a leader?  We need to embrace death, to accept and not resist, avoid, or ignore the inevitable reality of the situation.  One of the best ways to do this is to "take action," no matter how small.  

  • Selfishness - At altitude on the peak of a mountain, selfishness kills people when teamwork is critically needed to deal with injuries, equipment, malfunction, threats of avalanche and weather.  Developing a compelling saga for the team to survive danger requires challenging the team as to whether there is a common passion that is greater than the ego's agenda.

  • Tool Seduction - Being seduced by the illusion that tools produce results instead of people.  In mountaineering, tool seduction endangers climbers every time they dress in the latest gear but apply the wrong techniques and behaviors to the challenge.  High altitude teams only use tools that drive team success, and don't get distracted by industry fashion trends.  So, focus on team behavioral change and adaptation, not just the tools themselves.

  • Arrogance - We've all experienced arrogance and/or have demonstrated arrogance ourselves.  Instead of stepping over weak climbers, or leaving them for dead, humble leaders act decisively.  This is where leadership greatness emerges.  Humbleness comes from acknowledging your own limitations, your mistakes, and learning from them, not trying to demonstrate your brilliance. 

  • Lone Heroism - The danger of a glory-seeking lone-hero breaks a team as they step on other team members without even removing their crampons (metal spikes).  Instead of heroism, engaging and leveraging others to help, increases team productivity and results. Lone heroism contributes to higher operating cost, lower innovation, increased risks, delayed execution, higher turnover and missed sales opportunities.  Is there someone in your organization the company thinks it can't live without? 

  • Cowardice - Lack of courage to face danger, difficulty, opposition or pain.  As soon as team members are too afraid to confront violations of accountability, take necessary risks, or maintain team principles and values during times of trouble, it causes team failures by stopping the essential act needed for effective execution....tell the truth. "Cowardice eats truth.  Lack of truth eats team performance." (Warner)  High altitude teams develop bravery which allows them to achieve the accountability, risk-taking, commitment, and truthful communication necessary for achieving their goals. 

  • Comfort - A state of ease and satisfaction with wants, or seeking freedom from pain and anxiety.  This is usually evidenced by false commitments to action as well as avoidance, denial, and silence to avert discomfort from revealing the real issues about a situation.  This is where there needs to be perseverance in the face of discomfort.  No goal worth accomplishing is achieved without surviving the stretch. 

  • Gravity - When gravity propels you, you're invincible.  When it pulls you down, you fall hard.  In business, gravity is a force of uncertainty that unpredictably pushes or pulls performance regardless of what a team does or decisions that management makes.  That's right luck!  So how does a team deal with the risk?  Accept that luck happens, and work with it, but more importantly maximize change opportunities by being open to new experiences, listen to your lucky hunches: your gut is normally right, expect good fortune and visualize yourself being lucky, and turn bad luck into good. 


As leaders, we are the example.  The traps are ones we all fall into, but our ability to conquer ourselves is was truly makes us successful.


"Don't lose yourself in the process, but dig deeper into yourself so that you can climb even higher.  This remains the timeless challenge of a leader." (Warner)


Jayne McQuillan, CPA, MBA, CEPA is a strategic management consultant, and the owner of Journey Consulting, LLC, in Green Bay



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