Thursday, December 1, 2016

Don’t Just Lead – Guide!

Guest post from Chris Maxwell:


I’ve always been a fan of adventure stories, and some of the most engaging of these are about great mountaineers and the triumphs and tragedies they have experienced.  Business leaders, too, revel in inspiring stories of overcoming adversity, and the metaphor of striving to reach a distant peak, with all its challenges and rewards, works beautifully in the workplace.  As Ed Bernbaum, a mountaineer and Senior Fellow at the Mountain Institute writes, “Just as Everest stretches people to do more than they thought they could, so companies want to stretch their employees to reach the loftiest goals, to be number one in the field, to provide the best product or service in the industry group.”

But in my view, rather than the extreme mountaineer, it’s the mountain guide we can learn the most from.  Perhaps that’s because the thought of guiding others to reach their own summits at work is something we can all relate to -- and wish for.

Over the past decade, I organized over twenty, guide-led expeditions designed to build leadership and teamwork skills for Wharton Business School students.  These ventures took place on high peaks and trails around the world, including remote locations in North America, Patagonia, and Iceland.  Although the expeditions were mentally and physically challenging, each allowed relatively inexperienced travelers to participate.  What the guides taught us about leading is now being put into practice by participants working in top organizations around the world.

Here’s what I found -- guides display six important leadership strengths that work as well in business as they do in the mountains:

1. Guides demonstrate social Intelligence, the ability to build and maintain positive relationships.  Guides quickly establish personal relationships that don’t fracture easily under pressure.  Christian Hoogerheyde, a project manager at Socrata, a Seattle-based cloud software company, says his Icelandic guide’s social skills “serve as a lesson to me every time I try to establish a new client’s trust.”

2. Guides are adaptable, and expertly change their leadership style as conditions on the mountain change.  One guide told me that he would teach his clients in the lodge, coach clients on steep snow slopes, and guide firmly when things got tough.  Seychelle Hicks, a team manager at Silicon Valley’s Bloomreach, says her expert guide helped her learn to navigate rough terrain on the mountain, coaching and leading by example. The experience helped her become more comfortable with using a variety of leadership styles at work, and to “adapt throughout the day to our customers, resourcing demands, building a self-directed team -- and only jumping in when needed.”

3. Guides empower others to reach their own summits.  Edmund Reese, an executive at American Express who was a member of a climbing team, says “The leadership lessons taught by both the guides and the mountain itself has honed my focus on embracing the front lines.  If we build leadership in others, we develop a stronger line and an overall stronger organization.”

4. Guides are trust-builders.  On an expedition to remote Navarino Island at the very tip of South America, one guide told me, “Modeling what trust means is key.  It’s never about talking about things.  It’s about showing them.”  John Sims, CFO at Snowden Lane Partners who climbed the Grand Teton with a guide-led team, says, “Without trust in your teammates, you will only do as much as faith in your own limited abilities will take you.”

5. Guides are risk-aware and provide safety in uncertain conditions.  Lyndsey Bunting, now director of financial analysis at Birchbox, left her job in investment banking to serve with the Peace Corps in a remote area of Panama.  Although she fell ill on her first guided summit attempt, she successfully returned to lead a team to the summit a year later.  She says, “Whether it’s a skill we’ve had to learn from a tough life, like many of the world’s poorest populations, or from mountain climbing or other pursuits, functioning and thriving in uncertainty is something that we’re all able to learn.”

6. Guides see the big picture.  Less-experienced climbers may be lured by a beckoning summit, often falling victim to what’s known as “summit fever,” but the wisest guides take a more holistic view of the endeavor.  Deborah Horn, a manager at Microsoft, found that her climb was cut short by a fierce storm.  “At our night camp,” she says, “our guide delivered the message that we would have to end our climb.  I learned that even if the summit isn’t attained, the journey is just as valuable and rewarding as standing on the peak.”

Chris Maxwell, PhD, is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His book, Lead Like a Guide:  How World-Class Mountain Guides Inspire Us to Be Better Leaders, is published by Praeger (September 2016).

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