Leadership Lessons of a Rock Climber

For this noted management writer and thinker, the mountain is the ultimate classroom. Here's what he has learned from climbing it.

As an avid rock climber for more than 30 years, my whole approach to life and career has been inextricably linked with my development as a climber. I began in my early teenage years, when my stepfather signed me up for a climbing course against my will. ("I'd rather study," I whined.) At the end of the first day, however, I knew I'd discovered one of my life's burning passions. Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, I had one of the world's great climbing centers as my backyard, and some of the greatest climbers in the world as mentors. After visiting Stanford University during my senior year in high school, I effused to my parents about my college choice: "They've got these really cool sandstone buildings to climb on between classes!"

One day during my freshman year, while climbing a new route on the philosophy building in the main quadrangle, I heard a shuffle of feet behind me and then the voice of emeritus philosophy professor John Goheen. "Really, Mr. Collins. Do you think this is the ultimate solution to the existential dilemma?" I named the climb Kant Be Done.

Rock climbing, for me, has been the ultimate classroom, with lessons applicable to all aspects of life, including business, management, leadership, and scientific study. It is a sport from which you do not always get a second chance to learn from your mistakes--death tends to stop the learning process. But I've been fortunate to survive my own blunders and to learn some important lessons that apply to life and work outside of climbing.

Lesson Number 1

Climb to Fallure, not Failure: How to Succeed Without Reaching the Top

My friend Matt and I walked around the bend in the trail, and I stopped dead in my tracks and looked at a beautiful sheet of rock--smooth and slightly overhanging, with a thin, fingertip-sized seam splitting the middle of the silver granite wall. "You can see why I named the route Crystal Ball," Matt said, pointing to a baseball-sized quartzite handhold 50 feet up.

We roped up and I set off up the route, shooting for an "on-sight" ascent. (An on-sight means that on your first try, you lead the climb without prior information about the moves and without any artificial aid. Other climbers have not told you how to climb the difficult sections, nor have you watched anyone else attempt the route.) You get one chance for an on-sight. Once you start to climb, if you blow it and fall onto the rope, you've lost the chance forever.

Ten feet below the crystal, my feet began to skitter about, slipping off slick pebbles, and I curled my thumb around a little edge, thinking to myself, "If I can just get a little weight off my fingers . . ." The adrenaline of the on-sight attempt made me overgrip every hold, clamping down as hard as I could--like an overanxious runner who goes out too fast in the first 800 meters.

"Breath, Jim. Relax." Matt's voice soothed me for a moment.

I gathered a bit of composure, while hooking my thumb and resting my fingers, trying to get my breathing to settle down. But my mind chattered away: "If I get it wrong, no way I can reverse. . . . And even if I get it right, I'm not sure I'll have enough power to pull up to the crystal ball. . . . And if I can't get to the crystal ball, there's no way I'll be able to get the rope clipped into the next point of protection. . . . How far would I fall? . . ."

Tick, tick, tick. The clock ran on while I hesitated.

"Okay Matt, here I go."

Right hand to the side pull. Left foot to the edge.

"Uh oh." Wrong call. I should have gone to the edge with my left hand! I rolled my body to the left, groping for an edge, a pebble, a wrinkle--something, anything--that would allow me to pop my right hand up and move my left onto the side edge. I smooshed my right fingers into a little edge that pointed down and sideways--the wrong direction for a good pull. I now had a less than 20% chance of success. If I tried to make the move, I'd almost certainly fall, a drop of 30 feet. Even if I did manage to surge upward, the higher I went without trying to "clip" the next bolt, the bigger the eventual fall. (To clip means to get the rope into the carabiner hanging off a protection bolt.)

"Off!" I called down to Matt.

"No," he yelled back. "You're only three moves from the crystal. You can recover there."

"OFF!" I yelled.

And I let go, dropping onto the rope in a nicely controlled fall.

I hung on the rope for about 10 minutes, recovering, and then swung toward the rock, pulled myself back on to the holds, and climbed to the top. But of course, it didn't count. I hadn't done a clean on-sight. And even though later in the day, I managed to ascend the route from bottom to top in one shot--a success by most measures--I had nonetheless failed. Not failed on the climb, but failed in my mind. When confronted with the moment of commitment, the moment of decision, the moment of go-for-it on the on-sight, well, I let go. I went to failure, not "fallure."

Failure and fallure. The difference is subtle, but it is all the difference in the world. In fallure, you still do not get up the route, but you never let go. In fallure you fall; in failure you let go. Going to fallure means full commitment to go up--even if the odds of success are less than 20%, 10%, or even 5%. You leave nothing in reserve, no mental or physical resource untapped. In fallure, you never give yourself a psychological out: "Well, I didn't really give it everything. . . . I might have made it with my best effort." In fallure, you always give your full best--despite the fear, pain, lactic acid, and uncertainty. To the outside observer, failure and fallure look similar (you fly through the air in both cases), but the inner experience of fallure is totally different from that of failure.

You'll only find your true limit when you go to fallure, not failure. Sure, I had less than a 20% chance of pulling through to the crystal ball, but because I let go, I'll never know for sure. Perhaps I would have had an extra reserve; perhaps I would have surprised myself and had an extra bit of power to hang on for one more move. Or perhaps--and this turned out to be true--the very next hold is better than it looks. And that's the rub. On an on-sight--as with life--you don't know what the next hold feels like. It's the ambiguity--about the holds, the moves, the ability to clip the rope--that makes 100% commitment on an on-sight so difficult.

One of my mentors in life, the design guru Sara Little Turnbull, gave me a wall hanging with a quote from her speech at the 1992 Corporate Design Foundation Conference:

If you don't
Stretch
You don't know
Where the edge
Is

Turnbull, director of the Stanford University Process of Change Laboratory, built a distinguished career as a design consultant to corporations such as Corning and 3M. The Corporate Design Foundation described Turnbull as "CEOs' secret weapon in product design development." Turnbull told me that some of her best designs came when she was on the brink of a failed concept but refused to let go.

Of course, many--indeed, most--of her brink-of-failure designs ended up being failures. But every once in a while, by not letting go, she would push herself to a completely different level, and something extraordinary would come about. "And that's when breakthroughs happen," she told me. "You have to be on the brink of failure and then surprise yourself. You just go to a different level." Fallure, not failure.

In researching great companies, I've noticed how the best executives intuitively understood this idea. As CEO of Kimberly-Clark, Darwin Smith made a fallure-versus-failure decision in vaulting his company to greatness. For 100 years, Kimberly-Clark languished in mediocrity, with most of its business in traditional paper mills. Smith realized that the company's best shot at greatness lay in the paper-based consumer-goods arena, where it had a side business called Kleenex--a brand that had become a category, like Coke or Xerox. Like the general who burned the boats upon landing, leaving no retreat for his soldiers, Smith decided to sell the traditional mills. He even sold the mill in Kimberly, Wisconsin, and threw all the proceeds into the consumer business, going head-to-head with such rivals as Scott Paper and Procter & Gamble. Wall Street derided him, the business media called the move stupid, and the analysts wrote merciless commentary. But in the end, Smith's decision paid off, and Kimberly-Clark became the number-one paper-based consumer-products company in the world.

In climbing jargon, Smith removed the ability to "take" (to tell your belayer to pull the rope tight and catch you in a controlled fall, as I did with Matt when I failed on Crystal Ball). Of course, there was no guarantee that Kimberly-Clark would succeed in the consumer business--it could have taken a huge leader fall--but Smith understood the only path to success lay in a full commitment to climb to fallure.

I now see life as a series of choices between going to failure or fallure. As in an on-sight attempt, the next hold in life remains unclear, ambiguous. And that very ambiguity keeps us back from making a fully committed attempt. We fail mentally. We let go. We take a nice, controlled fall, rather than risking a bigger fall. But as with most hard sport climbs, going to fallure in life is scary, but not dangerous. Whether it be starting a business or publishing a book or trying an exciting new design, fallure rarely means doom. And most important, the only way to find your true limit is to go to fallure, not failure.

At age 45, my body does not allow me to pull as hard on holds as when I was 20. But I've since learned that what you lose in physical strength you can gain by increasing your mental strength. And so, I continue to work in the realm of overhanging rock, trying to go to fallure.

I've even redefined "success" less in terms of getting to the top and more in terms of the quality of my mental effort. During a recent climbing session, I did not get up a single route. Not one. Still, it was one of my most successful days of climbing ever, because I went to fallure on every attempt. I felt good on the way home because my mind felt strong that day, compared to the weak feeling on most days. For in the end, climbing is not about conquering the rock; it is about conquering yourself. And this is what fallure is all about.

Of course, there are times when climbing to fallure wouldn't be valiant but just plain stupid--which brings us to the next lesson.

Lesson Number 2

Separate Probability From Consequence: How to Succeed--and Stay Alive--by Understanding the True Risks

In the summer of 1975, a young climber named David Breashears set his sights on a beautiful, unclimbed sheet of rock rising from the ground on a cliff south of Boulder. For years, no rock climber had given serious thought to climbing this section. The challenge lay not in the apparent difficulty of the climb, but in the absence of natural protection. Breashears saw no cracks where he might slot wired climbing nuts, and he was climbing in an era before it became acceptable to drill expansion bolts directly into the rock for protection. The wall rose vertically for about five stories, with little pebbles and sharp edges, then the angle kicked back to 85 degrees with holds that looked larger.

Breashears headed up the route, trailing a rope and carrying a small selection of wired nuts that he hoped to slot into one of the upper pockets after the hard climbing. At the 50-foot mark, he had a horrifying realization: the climb ahead would be more difficult than the opening moves, and there were still no places to slot nuts. The rock became water-polished from thousands of years of runoff from above, and the sloping handholds had no sharp edges to grip. If he fell, he would plummet 60 feet straight down onto the jumble of boulders strewn at the base. At 32 feet per second squared, he would slam into the boulder field at nearly 50 miles per hour at a force of 20 Gs. Ka-smack! One dead climber.

Was this a risky situation?

Well, it depends on what you mean by "risky."

For David Breashears, it was not a risky situation. Sure, the consequences of a fall were severe, but the probabilities of a fall were close to zero. David was such a gifted climber in his prime, that--to him--the route formed a puzzle to solve, but not a particularly difficult one. It would be like handing a world-class crossword-puzzle expert the Wednesday New York Times crossword (a challenging puzzle, but well within her capabilities) with the following instructions: If you don't get the puzzle right, we're going to drop you off a 60-foot cliff to your death.

If Breashears had allowed the 60-foot ground-fall potential to infect his brain, he might have died. But he didn't. He was able to separate the probabilities of falling from the consequences of falling, and he climbed with focused precision to the top, establishing a new route aptly named Perilous Journey.

Some of the most tragic accidents have come when climbers mismanaged this distinction, becoming blasé on easy terrain. On July 6, 2000, Cameron Tague made the approach to the Diamond Face on Long's Peak. To get to the midway point on the cliff, he decided to traverse in from the side, along a big sloping ledge called Broadway. For a climber as gifted as Tague, it would be an easy traverse, and to save time for the difficult climbing higher on the face, he didn't even bother to rope up. Then somehow, he lost his concentration, pulled on a loose piece of stone, and stumbled backward. Tague tried to recapture his balance, his hands grasping and waving about as he skittered toward the edge of the ledge. He disappeared over the edge of Broadway and fell 800 feet. The probabilities of falling were remote, but the consequences were lethal.

Separating probability from consequence applies not just to climbing but also to work, life, and business. In 1994, when Intel Corp. first discovered the floating decimal-point flaw in its Pentium microprocessor, engineers estimated it would cause a rounding error in division only once every 27,000 years for the average spreadsheet user. This infinitesimally small probability blinded Intel's leaders from worrying about the astronomically high consequences on the other side of the coin. When that one-in-a-billion event happened to a math professor, it ignited an explosion of Internet chat, which, in turn, caught the attention of the media. As then-Intel CEO Andy Grove described in his book, Only the Paranoid Survive (Random House, 1999)--a good title for climbers, by the way--the company found itself hounded by CNN, pilloried in the press, and jolted by unhappy customers. On December 12, 1994, Grove awoke to read the horrific headline, "IBM Stops All Shipments of Pentium-Based Computers." Ultimately, Intel took a $475 million write-off--an amount equal to half a year's R&D budget, or five years of Pentium advertising spending.

While Intel didn't die from the fall, it certainly crashed onto a ledge and shattered its leg. To Intel's credit, it changed its way of doing business to account for the consequences, not just the probabilities. To date, we have not seen another problematic Pentium event from Intel.

Separating probability from consequences is a key to leading an entrepreneurial life. When I taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, many of my students failed to grasp this distinction, and it limited their options. One came to my office and said, "I'd really like to start my own company, but it just seems so risky, so I'm going to take a job with IBM."

"What would happen if you give your startup the full try and failed?" I asked.

"I suppose I would go and get a job," she said.

"And how hard would that be?"

"Not very hard."

"So you're telling me that the worst-case scenario is that you'd be right back where you are now: looking at getting a regular job."

For a Stanford MBA, trying a startup was like going to fallure on a well-bolted sport route. Sure, the odds of success were low, but the consequences of falling were minimal. The rope would catch her. She went out on her own, gave it the full effort, and managed to climb through and build a successful startup. But she would never have known that if she had not separated probability from consequence.

The point here is to be clear on the difference between probability and consequence, and to act accordingly. On dangerous routes (or life situations that would destroy you or your company), you should avoid climbing to fallure, no matter how difficult or easy the terrain, unless you have no other choice. On sport routes with big, solid bolts (like Crystal Ball, or the startup venture of my student), you can take on difficult challenges with a 5% chance of success and throw yourself into full fallure mode. It might be scary, but it's not dangerous. The key is proper mindfulness, which brings us to the next lesson.

Lesson Number 3

Climb in the Future, Today: How to Succeed by Changing Your Frame of Mind

In 1978, I became obsessed with a climb called Genesis, a smooth, slightly overhanging 100-foot slab of red rock in Colorado's Eldorado Canyon. The route had never been "free-climbed," and most people doubted it would ever fall that way. (To free climb a route means that you climb with ropes, but only as a safety device; you ascend the rock entirely under your own power, without directly pulling on any gear. The rope and the protection devices are only there to catch you if you fall.)

Then one day, I watched John Bragg, a big, burly climber visiting from the East Coast, attempt Genesis. He pulled up onto a smooth overhanging section (the part everyone thought would never be climbed) and launched himself upward with a huge throw. His hand hit a little something up on the wall, and he stuck to it for just a second--a momentary pause--before his hand unlatched and he plummeted down 25 feet onto the rope. Bragg tried this throw 10 or 20 times, and then he gave up. "It's not going to go for a long time," he said.

Still, my imagination had been kindled. "If he could hang a little hold for even a second," I thought, "it must somehow be climbable." And so, before returning to college for my junior year, I ventured up the cliff to give it a try. I just could not, however, find an obvious way to climb with precision to the little hold Bragg had been jumping for, so that I might be able to hang on it long enough to pull up to the next hold.

Upon returning to college, I trained between classes, carrying a needle in my shirt pocket to pop the blisters on my fingertips that arose from the regimen. Yet, even with all this training, I failed to get up the climb. I was physically strong, but psychologically intimidated by the supposed unclimbability of the route. I needed to change my frame of mind.

But how to do it?

In studying climbing history, I noticed a pattern: Climbs once considered "impossible" by one generation eventually became "not that hard" for climbers two generations later. So, I decided to play a psychological trick on myself. I realized that I would never be the most gifted climber or the strongest climber or the boldest climber. But perhaps I could be the most futuristic climber. I did a little thought experiment. I tried to project out 15 years, and I asked myself, "What will Genesis seem like to climbers in the 1990s?" The answer came back clear as a bell. In the 1990s, top climbers would routinely on-sight Genesis, viewing it as simply a warm-up for even harder routes. And less-talented athletes would view Genesis as a worthy challenge but hardly impossible.

That's when I decided to pretend in my own mind that it was not 1979 but 1994. I bought a little day-timer calendar and changed all the year dates. I walked into the canyon and tried to picture Genesis the way a 1990s climber would look at it.

With that change in psychology, I managed to climb through to the top of the route. It caused quite a sensation and confused many of the best climbers of the day. They were still climbing in 1979, whereas I had psychologically transported myself to 1994. And, indeed, by the early 1990s, these same elite climbers climbed Genesis routinely, no longer thinking of it as particularly hard. One climber from England--a much stronger lad than me--even climbed it in his tennis shoes!

Changing our frame of mind carries over to all walks of life, particularly for entrepreneurs and visionary company builders. The key is to recognize underlying patterns, often with the benefit of historical perspective, and then to project forward what those patterns will mean for future generations. When Steve Jobs visited the Xerox PARC research facilities in 1979, he saw a bunch of desktop computers using point-and-click devices and screens that displayed exactly what would be printed on the actual page, formatting and all. Today, we take this for granted. I'm typing these words, while looking at a display that will print exactly as I see it, and I can move around the page using a mouse. But in 1979, no commercial computers--certainly not personal computers--had these capabilities. Jobs recognized immediately that these innovations would one day be taken for granted. He pictured how computers would be viewed 10 or 20 years down the road, when these features would be standard fare for even low-cost producers.

Instead of waiting for the world to make this shift, however, Jobs decided to act as if the world had already changed. And in 1984, the Macintosh computer was released, long before the natural forces of the market would have required such a device. It caused quite a sensation, stunning stronger and better companies such as IBM. But today, of course, we think nothing of these features. Jobs had simply stepped forward in time and built his company's next-generation computers with this changed frame of mind.

Climbing teaches that the biggest barriers are not on the rock but in our minds. We fail to go to fallure because we break mentally. We fail to take risks because we confuse probability and consequence, yet we become sloppy when the probabilities of falling are low (and senselessly risk all). And in perhaps the biggest failure, we allow today's frame of mind to limit our creativity and capabilities. What we perceive as limits today will simply be viewed as stepping-stones to the ultimate limits of the next generation. So, why not join the next generation now, and step right on past the limits of today? Why wait?

Daniel Boorstin argued in his classic book The Discoverers (Random House, 1985) that the primary barrier to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge and expertise. Discoverers see more clearly what can be done because they have less knowledge about the way things are supposed to work and are not trapped by the limits of their times. Similarly, climbing teaches that breakthroughs come not primarily by changing what we do, but by changing first and foremost how we think about what we do. And that is the toughest climb of all.

Adapted from Upward Bound: Nine Original Accounts of How Business Leaders Reached Their Summits. Edited by Michael Useem, Jerry Useem, and Paul Asel, published by Crown Publishing Group (2003).

Jim Collins is author of Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001) and coauthor of Built to Last (HarperBusiness, 1994). He is a self-employed professor who endowed his own chair and granted himself tenure. He still climbs three to four days a week.

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