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:

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