Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The Changing Face of Leadership in the 21st Century: Part Four


How do you show up?
Using self with intention and choice.

We had been on Everest for two months, setting up a string of camps and fixed lines in order to provide a summit team with the best chance of making it up and down again. Many of our team were spenttheyd given everything to build the camps and fix the lines. 

Only four climbers were still healthy and ready for the summit challenge. We called a meeting. The four would chose amongst themselves who would make the summit bid.

One of the four healthy-and-ready climbers was Sharon Wood.

Unexpectedly, this was a golden opportunity: Sharon could be the first woman in the Western Hemisphere to summit Everest.

Before the meeting, Sharon and I talked. Sharon wanted to be on the summit team. She was confident she had the strength and skill to summit. However, she hated the first womantheme and was reluctant to put herself forward. She wanted us to be satisfied with getting there by a new route as a team and she felt that putting herself forward might jeopardize the good will of the others. Everything had been going smoothly. She didnt want to create friction. 

With all the compassion I could muster for her reticence, I patiently hung in the conversation with her pointing out the importance and meaning of the opportunity not just for her, but for the expedition as a whole. 

Then we went into the meeting with the understanding that Sharon had to speak up for herself. I couldnt do it for her. As the conversation went round, Sharon remained silent, and the group chose Barry and Dwayne.

After the meeting broke up, in Sharons words:

Jim was waiting for me outside.

Mute with self-defeat, I watched as I rearranged the snow with the toe of my boot.

Woody! Whats with you?he said. Why didn’t you speak up?

I stared at my boots and mumbled, When could I have said anything? Like I told you there was already a plan, and it was on its feet and running.

What do you mean? I gave you a perfect cue.”

What seemed like several minutes of silence passed as I reflected.

Then Jim suddenly shouted: Come on Woody! Quit being so nice so god dammed Canadian! Heres your chance to make history, for usand for Canada!

Sharon Wood and I discussing summit possibilities 
Sharon said she needed to go think. After talking it over with Jane, our camp manager and cook, she approached Dwayne and Barry and told them she wanted to be on the first summit team. Barry graciously conceded his place, and the rest, as they say, is history.

This is a classic example of presence at work. Sharon was torn, and I was able to use my selfwith intent to arouse a necessary action. Sharon needed encouragement to fulfill her want. I was able to encourage her deliberately by showing up. I selectively used my manner, appearance, values, knowledge and reputation all together in a transparent mix: a passionate manner, my value of bringing out the best in people, especially that which they might not see themselves, my knowledge from having observed Sharons climbing, and my reputation as a climber established me as a trusted leader.

All of this helped Sharon stop seeing her belief in her ability as just a selfish ambition but rather as ambition in alignment with opportunity for both her and the team.

Once Sharon made her decision she tackled the daunting climb with her usual grit and tenacity. She had a great climbing partner in Dwayne, and the team threw everything they had into support of their successful bid.


At its simplest, presence is simply the capacity to give our undivided selves with attention to a team member, a meeting, a conversation, a situation.

At a deeper level, presence is a leadership capacity that invests every moment with maximum potency, so that your presence is a resource for every member of your team, your presence enriches every encounter, and you are fully alive to the meaning and implications of every decision you make.

What do leaders with great presence look like?

They score high in Emotional Intelligence (EI), the ability to be aware of one's own and other people's emotions, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour; to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathically. This allows them to be assertive without aggression, to heal breaches arising from conflict.

They score high in conscientiousness/integrity. This goes beyond honesty; it is a capacity for self-respect and respect for others.

They have a well-developed internal locus of control they understand their actions have an effect in the world, they take responsibility for their actions, they have the confidence to acknowledge shortcomings and believe they can develop greater capacity and skill when needed.

They operate with awareness of others/awareness of impact: Closely implicated with emotional intelligence, this capacity for clarity about how others are responding to events and to their presence empowers them to build strong collaborative relationships based on mutual understanding, rapport and trust.

Lessons Learned: Use of Self

Presence is the central capacity in what my Gestalt coaching background calls Use of Self. We choose to act and influence events while being fully in the present because it is only in the present that any of us can act at all.

Understanding presence and the use of self gives a leader massive influence. They can be inspiring in a practical, connected way, not by standing on higher ground and pointing to the stars, but by being right there with the individual, dyad, team, or larger institutional context of the team, feet on the ground, finding common direction together.

Use of Self is an essential leadership capability for the higher level of engagement called for in the twenty-first century business organization.

You can learn more about Presence, Emotional Intelligence and Locus of Control through coaching. For more about my approach to Executive Coaching:

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Changing Face of Leadership in the 21st Century: Part Three

Foresight – Facing Disruption with Flexible Determination

In the last post we looked at the vital role that Picture plays in 21st century leadership. Beyond imagining the future and what is possible, our 21st century leaders take immediate action to “step into” that picture and begin to live it as soon as they possibly can. These leaders do not stand by and point towards the future; they move there and act as a beacon to others to join them.

Disruption and Discontinuity – The Age of Volatility

So how do you do this when the world around you, geopolitics, the business environment, markets, the social context you operate in, is changing, not just rapidly, but in sudden bursts, leaps and twists that are impossible to consistently predict?

The type of climbing I am known for can best be described as Real Alpine Adventure. It is comprised of four elements: difficulty, danger, exposure and a high degree of commitment. Exposure means there is no possibility for outside help once you commit to the climb and it increases the higher up you are, the more remote your location, and the greater the difficulties encountered. The outcome is always uncertain, especially as in pioneering new routes, I am constantly encountering the unknown.

I asked my colleague, Global Trends Specialist Robert McGarvey** for his take on this: “If there is one key leadership take away from Jim’s efforts in the Himalayas it’s that success in conditions of dangerous uncertainty depend upon flexible determination.

“It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen, but a leader should prepare for alternative futures that are much different than today. Complete your formal plan, of course, but more importantly become more strategic as an organization. That means have a plan B, C and even a survival plan D where the unexpected is modeled and adjustments are anticipated in detail.” 

On our Everest Light expedition, we had a plan A and a plan B, and a survival plan C. We were determined to bring everyone home alive, and so our Plan C consisted of keeping support climbers on the mountain within reach of the summit team, so help was available if they got into difficulty.

Our plan A was the west ridge direct route, which fulfilled our desire to pioneer a new route to the summit. As time ticked by, we realized this route was consuming our resources faster than we could afford – we would exhaust our supplies and human capacity before we could mount a summit bid. So we had a plan B in our pockets – still a new route, but bypassing the worst of the West Ridge direct route that was eating us alive.

Even with all our planning and preparation, we were constantly challenged to dig deeper and deeper for the determination to carry on. Getting the summit team into position for their one-day final push almost defeated us – it was so windy, so cold, and working without oxygen in the Death Zone so debilitating, thoughts of surrender were getting the upper hand. This is where our team approach came through for us – Kevin Doyle, who was climbing (and sometimes crawling) in support, declared he was not about to give up, having come this far, even though it meant he would have no chance to summit himself, and he was so fiery about it that he reignited the determination of the summit climbers and they got to the high camp site, set up the tent and tucked in for the night. The summit bid was back on track.

Summit day was long and gruelling, and Sharon and Dwayne got to the top very late in the day – they had to descend to their tent in the dark. Plan C came into play the next day when, dehydrated and exhausted, they were met on the way down by Laurie Skreslet, who brought them oxygen and hot liquids. Their chances of getting down to a safe altitude on their own were pretty slim. I have been grateful ever since that we remained committed to plan C

Plan C in action. Sharon and Dwayne, exhausted and dehydrated were met by Laurie who brought them hot liquids and oxygen and helped them get down to a safer altitude. Without this support they would have been at serious risk of dying.
For leaders at all levels, your organization will face adversity in the future, maybe orders of magnitude greater than you anticipate. To be among the winners you’ll need all the flexibility and determination you can muster. Now is the time to prepare your mind and your organization for success in a volatile future.

Learning for 21st Century Leaders in an Age of Disruption:

To foresee effectively in disruptive environments, the leaders’ mindset needs to embrace multiple awarenesses:

Process awareness -- attention to the ongoing work and what we are doing right now;

Situational awareness -- attention to the operating environment and the complex of active components that influence ongoing activity;

Emergent awareness -- attention upon what is emerging around the edges: the subtle signals that come quietly in on a tangent, that are hard to detect because we are not specifically looking for them–.

These three levels of awareness were in constant play for me on Everest – keeping the major goal in mind, addressing all the myriad operational details and the shifting influence of weather, snow conditions, the state of mind of each climber, the ebbs and flows in relationship among the team members, a constantly-changing constellation of challenge and opportunity.

But there is one more dimension to this arsenal of awareness and it is the key: self-awareness, attunement to self: a continuous attention to one’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and how one is reacting to changes in the environment, or to differing, even conflicting perspectives. A leader’s beliefs, often unconsciously held, have been reinforced by success. When circumstances radically change, the tendency is to fall back on the old success model, the beliefs and assumptions that worked in the past, often with disastrous results.

Lack of self-awareness has killed far too many climbers. Without self-awareness, we can become blinkered and overconfident, the key weakness of so many leaders.

For more about the role of self-awareness in leadership, check out my Leadership Coaching Model at:

** Robert D. McGarvey, Global Trends Specialist. Keep in touch with Robert’s latest thinking at:

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Changing Face of Leadership in the 21st Century:Part Two

Making the Impossible, Possible.

Picture: Seeing a Shared Compelling Future
Picture is the first of the 5 Capabilities of Leadership.

The profile of Mount Everest stood stark and cold against the blue of the sky. Behind me the fire of my friend’s funeral pyre was burning.

I and the team I was with were tackling one of the great challenges in mountaineering -- getting to the summit of the world’s highest mountain. We all accepted that there would be risks. But my years of experience in the high places of the world had taught me about achieving great things safely. I knew there was a better way. And I was fortunate to know others who agreed with me. From that moment we began to formulate a new way of leading through pictorial alignment to reach our highest goals while remaining unwaveringly committed to bringing everyone home alive.
Retrieving Blair Griffith body after he had been crushed by collapsing ice in the Khumbu Icefall on Mt Everest.
He was the fourth to die among our expedition’s members in just a few days at the start of our 1982 climb.
Four years later we made the impossible, possible when we returned to Everest and climbed a new route (one that has never been repeated), enabled the first North American woman to reach the summit, and, most importantly, brought everyone back healthy. 

We were able to achieve this, I am convinced, because all the team members’ pictures were in alignment.

A compelling picture is an image of the future that draws us forward, that gets us out of bed in the morning to keep driving towards our goals. 

When we can bring our many individual compelling pictures together to form a group or shared picture, we can collectively achieve great things.

In a series of conversations over the months after our first Everest Expedition, my friends and I formulated a new approach to expedition climbing. Though we were hardly aware of it, we were painting a picture, a picture composed of our individual dreams and values, a picture rooted in our own experiences of climbing together.

This was not a quick or an easy process. One of the key insights I had gained from the tragic experience on our first expedition was that it is easy to assume alignment – only when you encounter the unexpected do you discover the underlying disconnects, just when there is no time to heal them. Ensuring alignment takes intention, good will and a willingness to work at it until everyone is in the picture.

In our case we took the time to make sure each new member of the expedition was in alignment as we recruited them. If they couldn’t see themselves in the picture we were forming, they didn’t qualify, even if they had stellar climbing credentials. They had to value bringing everyone home alive as a priority and they had to dream of doing a new route, and perhaps most important, they had to convince us their commitment included being willing to support any member of team to reach the summit. This proved to be enormously important as our small team engaged with the difficult challenges and suddenly shifting conditions of the climb.

Time after time I read of companies setting themselves the laudable goal of having a “zero-incident, zero-injury safety culture.” However, I seldom see the leaders of these companies grasping what’s necessary to achieve zero incidents. What is necessary is comparable to the way we made the impossible possible on Everest – significant investment in aligning everyone in a common picture and with a deeply-held set of shared values and principles.

Again, when we can bring many individual compelling pictures together to form a group or shared picture, we can collectively achieve great things.

We summited Everest by a new route, one of thirteen recognized routes on Everest and considered low probability- we were given a 17% chance of success, and to date, despite at least eight subsequent attempts, no-one has succeeded in repeating it .
I’ll finish with a short story. 

It was late in our second expedition to Everest when it became clear that time was running out, and a segment of our planned route was proving too slow and difficult. 

We had to make the difficult decision to modify our strategic picture by shifting our intended route. 

Everyone’s voice came into the conversation and opposing positions were vigorously expressed. But we stuck to our values of safety and life and kept the conversation going. 

We were a mature group with a high level of mutual respect, so we heard each other out and eventually achieved alignment. 

The changed route became part of our new compelling group picture. We all fully committed to the route change, and got ourselves back on track. Most to the point, early and strong advocates of the “don’t change it” picture became, in the end, instrumental supporters of our summit team on the new route.

This changed and shared clarity of purpose made a huge contribution to our success.

Leadership Lessons:
  • Leaders need to be able to align the pictures, values and perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders in our connected world of social responsibility;
  • Building a common picture from all the individual pictures is vitally important in maintaining the organization’s capacity to respond to unpredictable conditions and new challenges;
  • Ensuring that deeply held values like safety are part of the collective picture is essential to the highest levels of achievement for the team, the enterprise, the community.
To learn more about the Everest expeditions and how we applied these lessons to building a high performing safety culture:

Monday, 4 May 2015

The Changing Face of Leadership in the 21st Century:Part One

Building Commitment

It’s a new world today; the forces of globalization, the advent of social media and the rapid expansion of interconnection have changed things dramatically. The global economy and its associated business cultures are constantly being disrupted by new technologies, global crises and - not least - because of radically enhanced access by individuals and communities all over the world who until recently were excluded from influencing events.
These are the key characteristics of the New Normal in the Age of Volatility. For more about the Age of Volatility and the New Normal please see and see the video where I speak about volatility at (“Watch the Video”).

This new world calls for a whole new understanding of leadership. A masterful leader in today’s world is one who can co-lead, who can engage in a fluid dance of inspired collaboration, bringing the improvisational talents of a jazz musician to the constant flow of choice. 
The Five Capabilities of Leadership
Let me be clear – when I use the word “leader,” I am not referring merely to the titular head of a team or group, I am referring to anyone who is able to exercise the Five Capabilities of leadership, from anywhere in the organization:
1) Picture: Seeing a Shared Compelling Future;
2) Foresight: Anticipating Disruption and Discontinuity;
3) Presence: Offering the Best Self with Transparency;
4) Collaboration: Enabling Effective Teams/Groups through Authentic Connection;
5) Community: Influencing Beyond Organizational Boundaries.
Gone is the lone hero pointing the way forward; this quasi-military model is far too narrow. Leadership matters: a one percent change in a leader’s behaviors has exponential effect. So leadership is a key element of meaningful organizational change, whether in improving safety performance or in pursuit of any other demanding goal.
Leaders Strengthen Individuals’ Commitment
In most organizations, employees function on a continuum between compliance and commitment. Compliance can be enforced through rules, procedures, threats, bribes. But compliance has serious limitations. It is rarely if ever associated with innovation, breakthrough or exceptional performance.
Commitment, however, knows virtually no bounds. Most forms of organizational capacity, power, and competitive advantage are generated by commitment. But commitment springs only from emotion, from the heart. It can't be coerced or legislated, and it is a reliable predictor of consistent discretionary effort.
Relationship is the Essence of Leadership
The shift away from the lone, heroic leader implies a kind of collective leadership among groups of people inspired by a common picture. There is always someone taking the lead – dreamers, inspirers, drivers, supporters – anyone who shares the inspiration may step up and lead when the circumstances call them forward.

A Leader Succeeds through Enlistment:
Enlistment is a relationship skill in which individuals enlist others to act in support of an invented future.
As more and more people in the organization declare their commitment to the possibility, the organization takes large strides forward. The skill of enlisting is more about sharing than selling, and more about discovering than presenting. Extraordinary Leaders are highly skilled in enlisting others. They are also skilled in coaching others to do enlisting.
So now leadership is about having individuals continuously enlist each other.
In this context the key to successful change is each leader and the choices that leader makes - the choice to engage, the choice to commit, and the choice to share their perspective with others. Leaders create networks of thought, energy, and commitment that drive organizations.
There is an abundance of leadership models and theories. Why are we giving voice to this? Why is so much attention paid to leadership and yet no easy way to produce great leaders has emerged?
The top four leadership challenges are self-awareness, interpersonal relating (including listening skills and empathy), exercising influence and leading in times of change. The capacity to grow these capabilities is rooted in self-awareness and self-responsibility. It takes more than merely seeing them as good ideas – it takes the hard committed work of self-development, self-transformation.
It is through the Five Capabilities that leaders foster the relationships that transform organizations. I will expand on these topics in subsequent blogs.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Risk, Mindfulness and the Law of Uncertainty

Juan, a highly experienced climber, was climbing a route called Pervertical (M9), at the el Dorado cave, Grotto Mountain, Canadian Rockies. His wife, Virginie, was belaying. That is, Juan was climbing an overhanging rock face with ice gear (called dry tooling) and Virginie was belaying, that is standing below managing the safety rope that would arrest him if he fell.

He fell.

Unanticipated Change in Conditions

This was a climb Juan had made many times before. In fact he was so comfortable and familiar with it that he often chose not to wear his helmet. This belief that “I’ll be okay – it can’t happen to me,” is the source of so many dangerous decisions. Luckily for him, on this occasion he wore his helmet and it saved his life. All of the climbing Juan had done here was during the winter, when there was ice in the fissures of the rock, which made it very stable. On this day, the temperature was above freezing and water was seeping through the fissures in the rock of the roof he was crossing, and he failed to grasp the significance of that fact.
Juan pulling the roof

He set a tool in a fissure over his head, and when he put his weight on it, a sizable chunk of rock, about two feet by two feet, weighing something like 500 pounds, broke off and carried him down – he said it felt like an elephant stepping on his forehead. In a split second the weight of the rock had flipped him over, his safety rope caught him and he slammed into the rock face, the back of head hitting first – the back of his helmet took the impact.

The big chunk landed right where Virginie been standing.

Getting Real about Concussion

Between them they got him down – he was dazed and at first thought he could resume climbing, but Virginie said, “No, I’m taking you to the hospital.”

On the way to the car he felt as if he were walking on clouds - he realized he was more seriously hurt than he thought. A closer look at his helmet, which seemed unharmed, revealed that the shock-absorbing foam inside was completely crushed. He had sustained a massive blow to the head.

The doctors told him he had a concussion, and he needed to be extra careful to avoid further head injury for at least a year. Concussions or traumatic brain injuries (TBI) can go undiagnosed. We are all fairly familiar with concussions and we tend to assume that the effects will not be long lasting. Recently more media attention has uncovered the reality of TBIs; headaches, cognitive problems such as difficulty thinking, memory problems, attention deficits, frustration, and mood swings. It is estimated that 15% of people with a mild TBI can have symptoms like these for up to one year. These symptoms can obviously have a lasting effect on the injured party and their family. Repeated and severe TBIs can have lifelong and even life-shortening consequences.

Understanding Risk – Embracing Uncertainty

So what happened here? This was an incident that could very easily have resulted in two fatalities. There are a number of issues arising here, such as complacency – Juan had climbed this route many times before and he was confident, even overconfident, that he knew the dangers and was prepared for them. But for me this story is a great reminder that we live, climb and work in a world of uncertainty – no matter how confident we are that we know the risks and are prepared for them, there is no such thing as 100% certainty in the real world.

In terms of understanding risk, the probability of a harmful event taking place is an important dimension to grasp. Repeatedly performing an action or task that exposes you to a hazard, and getting away with it, can delude you about how risky that action is. When the potential reward is great – getting an important job done, attracting the admiration of our peers and achieving a long-held dream – most of us grossly underestimate the probability of something going wrong.

Obviously, this is especially important if the consequence of exposing yourself and others to that hazard is serious injury or death. And the answer is being more mindful – mindful of the hazards, mindful of the probabilities, mindful of the temptation to minimize these when the inspiring goal is within reach, mindful of the impossibility of certainty in the real world. And therefore being absolutely conscientious about all the measures you can take, like always using your PPE, to minimize the probability of an incident, the consequences of an incident, and exposure and vulnerability to the hazards.

In this case Juan and his wife had done a lot right – he was wearing his personal protective equipment (PPE) – helmet, harness and safety line, which saved his life; she had repositioned herself so as not to be directly under him, which saved her life. The big mistake was underestimating the effect of the thaw on the stability of the rock.
Juan and Virginie
When Juan reflects about this experience today, he says, “I could have been killed, my wife could have been killed – now I am a lot more mindful about the risks I take when I am planning a climb. I have developed a healthy fear which gives me more respect for the hazards out there.”

For more on understanding risk, see my video: Safety Culture – Embrace It at

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Rushing, Hazards and Mindfulness

I was preparing to shoot the first four videos of our Expedition to Safety series with our partner ERI Safety Videos when I got a call from New York.

Here was a shocking irony. My son Steffan, who is in the custom fine carpentry business, had been injured on the job. He had cut off a finger and seriously injured two others on a table saw. This was a very difficult message to hear – I was a thousand miles away and there was real uncertainty about the outcome. They reattached the severed finger at the hospital, but we didn’t yet know how successful it was going to be. I was very concerned, Steffan was in serious pain and his wife was fearful.

When there is an injury on the job, somebody has to make the call to notify the family; not an easy call to make. When there is a fatality, that call is exponentially more difficult.

How did it happen? The situation was not unusual. Steffan had just returned from vacation, and he was trying to get a job finished on a Friday – wanting to be done, paid and out of there. He and a partner were ripping strips of material for a custom installation—Steffan was feeding the material into the saw, and his partner was pulling the material off the other side. Wanting to make more efficient use of their time, Steffan told him to go and work on another aspect of the project, and he carried on ripping the material alone. This involved feeding material into the saw while reaching over the blade to guide the material that was coming out. In a moment, the material kicked back, pulling Steffan’s hand into the rotating blade.

In the immediate aftermath, in shock I am sure, he briefly thought of coping with the injuries using their first aid kit, and getting on with the job, but quickly realized he needed emergency medical attention –he had a severed finger!

Fortunately, Steffan’s wife arrived while he was realizing this and got him to the emergency room right away. After a five-hour wait, he was seen and his finger was surgically reattached. In all, he received forty stitches in his hand. He spent two days in hospital and after six months of physiotherapy, he still has limited use of the finger, though the reattachment took. He will need plastic surgery to restore more movement to that finger. So along with the shock and extreme pain, and the impact on his family, Steffan’s critical error led to lost time on the job; two days in hospital and considerably inhibited work capacity for quite some time afterward.

Smiling for his wife;dying inside of pain after receiving 40 stitches. 
When I asked him to reflect on the incident and how he has changed his behaviour on the job, he said, “It was definitely an eye-opener. I had a general sense of needing to be safe with machinery, but there was also the belief that it’ll never happen. Then it did. I am glad I already had a practice of never having more than an eighth of an inch of blade showing clear of the material I am cutting; if the blade had been set higher, I would have cut off three fingers. I am a lot more cautious and careful around machinery now, I think out what I am going to do and how I can keep my hands away from hazards like a rotating saw blade. I used to hate the blade guarding that came with the table saw, including the riving knife (which had been removed) that prevents the material from binding and kicking back—now I like it.  I use more jigs and guards, and generally pay better attention.”

This story obviously has a personal impact on me, and it is also a great example of the risks of rushing in the presence of hazards. I define rushing as moving faster than usual or doing too many things at once. This leads to situations like eyes not on task and puts you in the line fire. When you go faster than normal, you are not fully attending to what you are actually doing, and it is easier to miss seeing a hazard until it is too late –you will not be able to react in time to protect yourself.

This really points up the value of mindfulness – keeping your attention on the moment-to-moment actions you are executing. It is so easy to shift mentally into multitasking, giving your attention to a time goal like getting the job done today, thinking about how to get more out of your manpower resources and in the end, making poor choices that lead to a serious injury incident. Poor decisions, like skipping steps in a process, are often the result of rushing to meet a time target.

Insurance statistics I have read point out that more than ninety percent of incidents occur because workers have not been doing their job properly – skipping steps, bypassing safety procedures and guarding, etc.

Lessons learned:

Maintaining mindfulness while working near hazards is absolutely vital to staying injury incident free;

No amount of guarding and safety protective gear can prevent injury if you work to circumvent them;

Rushing in pursuit of the illusion of efficiency is not worth the risk of serious injury. It is natural to want to get the job done – just be mindful of the potential cost.

The impact of poor decisions leading to injury is not just on the individual; family, fellow workers, employer and customers are all affected as well.

The Expedition to Safety videos will be available April 1 from

A sample video can be viewed at

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Beliefs,Values and Hard Decisions

The team celebrating on learning Sharon and Dwayne had reached the summit.

The whole team was ecstatic.  Sharon and Dwayne were on their way down from the summit of Everest. Sharon had become the first woman from the western hemisphere to summit the world’s highest mountain; we had climbed by a route no-one had successfully climbed before (and in fact no-one has climbed it since), and we had accomplished these world firsts with a tight team of thirteen, limited use of supplemental oxygen and no hired load carriers. We all felt we were on top of the world.

However, there was more in store for us as a close-knit team that had set a standard  that included the highest safety objectives in a seriously hazardous environment: we had agreed to make every decision with the overriding requirement that everyone came home alive.

We had a second summit team ready and eager to make their own attempt. Barry and Albi had graciously stepped aside to allow Sharon and Dwayne to make her historic reach for the summit with the maximum resources in support. Now, the ropes and camps were in place, the route was open, and I had promised Barry and Albi they could go for it if we had the resources to support them.

Albi and Barry
But we didn’t. A crucial element of our safety plan was to have support climbers on the mountain behind our summit team, ready to come to their rescue if they got into trouble. Everyone else on the team was exhausted, burnt out, drained by three months of grueling effort under punishing conditions. We had no support climbers to send up with them.

I made the most difficult decision of my climbing career and told Barry and Albi they had to come down. They couldn’t accept it and we argued back and forth for hours – they insisted they were experienced and fit, they understood the risks, the prize was there for the taking. 

This is a classic collision of perspective. As climbers, Barry and Albi could see their most coveted goal within reach, could feel their commitment, their self-confidence, their belief in their ability to get the job done. I could feel all that – I am a climber too. But as leader, I was stewarding a wider perspective – I remembered and remained committed to our foundational value of safety for everyone, I knew it couldn’t be set aside and remain a genuinely primary belief. It was my job to stand up for that value, the primacy of that belief, alongside our climbing ambitions.

I had good reason. In the previous few years, I had found my best friend’s body after a fatal fall from an ice climb in the Rockies. Not long after, my brother was killed in an avalanche. On our previous expedition to Everest, four people had been killed in two separate incidents, both preventable with better leadership and planning, in my opinion. I was more than primed to treat safety as a top priority – I had committed to the expedition with a clear understanding that we all agreed we were bringing everyone back alive, no matter what.

Years later, in his memoir, The Calling, Barry described our difference as “a banker’s decision, not a climber’s.” (Our principle sponsor was a bank, and he was suggesting I didn’t want to risk anything going wrong after the big win we had just recorded, for the sake of wowing the sponsor.)  I believe this is a misunderstanding. My decision was a leader’s decision – if safety is your highest value, you don’t put people at risk for the sake of a seductively tempting goal.

This was my first really conscious experience of exercising a key leadership capability when the stakes were high – the ability to hold competing elements of a dilemma as equally important, to see them in a both/and context, not an either/or context. Polarization is dramatic and emotionally seductive. Acting from a full valuing of competing intentions is difficult, but it is the responsible way, especially when lives are at stake.

Whether it is delivering a record level of production, cutting costs to the bone, maximizing quarterly results, if you have compromised safety, you haven’t achieved anything lasting or worthwhile.  If you get away with it, even multiple times, you have achieved only a temporary victory. Inevitably, the odds will catch up with you.

Over and over again, even in organizations that insist safety is top priority, I see people subordinating safety to performance goals. Only when a tragedy takes place do the true human values rise to the surface and a concerted effort is made to walk the safety talk.

A leader must hold the competing figures of every dilemma as equally important, and act from that perspective.

When the urge to act, to push through despite the risks, is strong, that is the moment to pause and reflect on what is really important.