A Lesson in Situational Leadership at 4800 Meters
Updated: Aug 4
I’m delighted to bring you an alpine leadership lesson that due to space constraints didn’t make into my upcoming book Humanity at Work. Rather than wait for my next book to offer this high-altitude story to folks, whether they have their Camalot climbing gear handy or not, here it is.
Neil Greenwood had been in sticky situations on the side of a mountain before. He is the director and part owner of Summit Oxygen, the leading designer and supplier of supplemental oxygen systems for use at high altitudes. Greenwood came to Summit Oxygen after a career with the British Armed Forces and extensive mountain climbing experience. The company’s innovations are now required equipment on US military expeditions and aircraft.
Greenwood had a lifetime of preparation for a moment just like the one he was narrating to me, but this time it was different, and admittedly there was more at stake. Greenwood was leading a two-week expedition, building up to an ascent of Mont Blanc in the French Alps. He was the most experienced climber of the four-person team, and just the person you would want in charge to take the summit.
As Greenwood embarked on the tale of the expedition, a continent removed on a sticky August evening, his life and business partner, Candace, looked on. I caught a good-natured (and I intimated) loving glimpse of “I’ve heard this tale a few times before” and “This always get a reaction from me; are you sure you want to tell the story again?” Something in his retelling was already pressing her buttons. It would soon become obvious as to why. The Brit mountain climber met his Canadian wife—where else?—in the Canadian Rockies, of course. They then made a life for themselves in the UK, where they raised three sons and located the business venture.
The climb was about three-quarters complete when conditions conspired to compel the climbers to make a decision to go back down the mountain, with incredible memories and a sense of accomplishment that could not be denied, or continue to the summit. The patents he and his other inventor/business partner hold where the furthest thing from Greenwood’s mind as the decision to carry on the expedition or turn around needed to be made. Both abandoning the climb and carrying on made sense for different reasons. Carrying on would mean that team members would break through mental and physical barriers and they would achieve their ultimate objective; turning around could be viewed as an admission of failure.
“In the military, as the expedition leader and most experienced, I would make my decision and just inform the team,” Greenwood said, referring to the decision to carry on or turn around. He understood how a decision to turn back can impact a young climber’s confidence, yet conversely when properly framed can be a meaningful teaching moment with far-reaching positive implications.
Greenwood fought the urge to simply direct the expedition to the safest and, to his mind, the most logical conclusion given the situation. Challenging situations were the norm in the military and he had always met such tests before. In this situation, weighing the conditions and risks against whom he was with, and the implications of making the wrong decision, led to a collective decision that all felt good about. Greenwood’s three university-aged children cast their vote to turn around.
I don’t think we need to be at altitude in order to rethink our natural tendencies when choosing how to lead and make decisions. Catching yourself in the moment is the foundational piece. May we all have Greenwood’s presence of mind, and I’m talking at sea level let alone at altitude, to opt for the appropriate approach.
Candace’s reactions were those of a mother, confident in her expedition-leader husband’s capabilities, but let’s just say she took the opportunity handed to her that evening to once again commend Neil on his leadership decision-making and parenting prowess.
In the way of a conclusion, this story drives home the learning that our leadership approach needs to be situational at every turn, and while we may have some favorite or go-to methods, true leadership is knowing when and how to put those methods, as well as methods we’re less comfortable with, into action after careful observation and a considered assessment of the situation.
Clearly the key is to develop the capacity to first discover root causes and understand what is really going on in any situation, and second to weigh the assortment of options. By assortment I mean the ever-increasing array of skills, capabilities, and approaches that intentional leaders build consciously and continuously.
In my book Humanity at Work, situational leadership is discussed early on, where the leadership journey begins, which is a process of “awakening the leader within.” Self-discovery is nurtured with important questions to assess how you lead every day, and in doing so asks you to reflect on the values that are foundational to your approach, how you want to be heard, and whether you’re a positive force. Most critical is having clarity on how you balance your concern for people and the need to produce results.
I hope you enjoyed this high-altitude leadership lesson. It’s a taste of things to come. In the next blog, I will preview Part 2 of the book, where I plot the course to learning about creating meaningful work for yourself and others, effective delegation, and building some robust, proven leadership habits.
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