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Leadership Lessons from… Mt. Everest

Michael Useem is an avid mountaineer, a university professor and a successful author. So it is only natural that he uses mountain climbing as a metaphor to teach leadership development. According to Useem, Mt. Everest is among the most demanding of nature’s ‘classrooms’. Success requires that those who aspire to such a heights put aside their personal interests for that of the team they are climbing with. The leadership demonstrated by the individual guiding the team to the summit makes the difference between success and failure.

Michael Useem is an avid mountaineer, a university professor and a successful author. So it is only natural that he uses mountain climbing as a metaphor to teach leadership development.

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According to Useem, Mt. Everest is among the most demanding of
nature’s ‘classrooms’. Success requires that those who aspire to such a
heights put aside their personal interests for that of the team they
are climbing with. The leadership demonstrated by the individual
guiding the team to the summit makes the difference between success and
failure.

In a 2001 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Michael
reveals that just like those who successfully guide their team to the
top of the world, the most effective and successful leaders in today’s
challenging work environment follow four basic principles to insure the
success of the team and programs for which they’re ultimately
responsible. Here are his four principles:

  • Leaders should be led by the group’s needs, not their own. Leaders
    should never let their own interests cloud their judgment when making
    decisions that affect everyone. Leaders, who work to serve the
    interests and welfare of those to whom they’re responsible, realize the
    greatest successes for an organization. In placing their own welfare
    below that of their employees, their authority becomes unquestionable
  • Inaction can sometimes be the most difficult, but the wisest
    action. Acting decisively and taking risks to advance the objectives of
    the organization come instinctively to the most effective leaders.
    However, the ability to simply do nothing if the alternative is to act
    foolishly may be the wisest although most difficult thing to do in some
    situations. In such situations, leaders must not only prevent
    themselves from acting rashly, but prevent others from doing so as well.
  • If your words don’t stick, you haven’t spoken. Leaders often fail
    to realize the difference between telling their folks something, and
    delivering the information in a way that “sticks”. When leaders clearly
    disseminate their strategic intent, the other members of the team will
    know precisely what to do without requiring a myriad of additional
    instruction.
  • Leading upwards can feel wrong when it is right. Effective leaders
    do not just motivate their own team, they also call to action those
    outside their scope of responsibility, including their own supervisors.
    Because of the hierarchical nature of most organizations, it often
    feels uncomfortable or even wrong to “lead upward”. It’s important to
    remember though, that even the most experienced top executives are
    fallible, and it becomes the responsibility of the effective leader to
    help them avoid the pitfalls they haven’t seen.

Do you follow the leadership lessons of Mt. Everest? If not, start climbing

Michael Useem is William and Jacalyn Egan Professor of Management
and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the
Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Upward Bound: Nine Original Accounts of How Business Leaders Reached Their Summits and Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win.

Michael E. Waddell is the co-author of Toy Box Leadership: Leadership Lessons From The Toys You Loved As A Child.

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