Complete leadership failure. I hadn’t showered in three weeks, I was sunburnt, and I weighed twenty pounds less than I did when we started 21 days ago. I was despondent and exhausted. As an assistant guide on my first trip to climb Denali, North America’s highest peak, I was hopefully, energetic, and open to influence; that was three weeks ago. Now I was tired, depressed, and lethargic. Our team was in a similar state. The mountain had dealt us a difficult hand: colder than normal temperatures, high winds, and unrelenting snow fall. Our expedition leader, my mentor on this climb, had dealt us an even more difficult hand: distracted leadership and I as a junior staff struggled to find my own voice and authority. We failed as leaders. It wasn’t pretty.
“The X-Factor of Great Leadership is Not Personality, it’s Humility”
— Jim Collins
There is always uncertainty associated with an expedition; with any significant project. It’s embedded in the nature of the endeavor. Uncertainty is necessary and as team members we were not only aware of it, but we also welcomed it. Uncertainty gave the experience vitality and energy.
Yet, our challenges faced on Denali that May were not defined by the environmental uncertainty on the mountain. The uncertainty was a reflection of our leaders distracted presence and our (his and my) inability to find common ground as co-leaders and support the expedition as a whole. No one was injured, but no one succeeded to either reach the summit or walk away with a satisfying experience: we ran a toxic expedition.
The leadership failure did not come as a result of the team leader’s, nor my, lack of technical skill. We had all of the bases covered and handled the technical challenges with ease. Our leadership failure came from within: our character and ability to self-assess and course correct.
Looking back on the expedition and the dynamic offers an opportunity for learning. Where did we go wrong? What missteps were made? Were we aware of them? What distracted us? Why did I struggle to intervene and assert more influence? The list of post-mortem questions goes on.
Reflecting on the expedition as a whole and the challenges we faced, one key take-away stuck with me as a leader. Ask this question: Am I open to having my ideas challenged?
Are we as leaders, co-leaders, and team members open to both having our ideas challenged and challenging the ideas of those around us? Can we do it in a constructive way that supports the expedition to reach the summit? How much discomfort and strife do we allow to develop before asking these questions?
If my co-leader and I had approached the expedition initially from this perspective of humility and maintained an orientation towards the ultimate health and success of the expedition our ultimate outcome would have been dramatically different. Instead, self-assessment and open dialogue fell to the wayside and personal ego and pride directed the course of our expedition: we all failed.