Believing is Seeing: A Mountaineer Talks to Business About Overcoming Adversity

As if climbing Mt. Everest in 2001 was not achievement enough, blind climber Erik Weihenmayer has now completed his bid to climb the Seven Summits – the highest mountain on each continent. Speaking to an audience of financial specialists at Merrill Lynch in Princeton, NJ, he recounted his struggles to overcome adversity, suggesting “everyone can lead – leadership is contagious.”

Moving from the comfort of modern-day life to face the challenges of high-altitude mountaineering without sight requires harnessing the energy of adversity “like an alchemist,” Weihenmayer says. One intriguing lesson he learned after an unsuccessful bid to climb Nepal’s 22,494 ft Ama Dablam is that “adversity is not the obstacle, but the pathway.” Weihenmayer celebrates every step of his journeys, both the easy and the difficult, and he’s learned to seek team members who are prepared to face and overcome fear and uncertainty together in tough conditions. Tackling adversity, Weihenmayer suggests, makes team members more focused, driven, and creative.

Brad Olson, CFO, Merrill Lynch Global Private Client, said he sees real value in developmental experiences “that are challenging, rewarding, and leave participants with honed leadership and problem-solving skills.” Weihenmayer told his audience that a firm can also harness the energy of overcoming uncertainty and hardship in much the same manner as mountaineers – linked together as climbers are roped together on a mountain, inspired by a common vision and following a common purpose, working interdependently to face and overcome adversity. Weihenmayer also thinks visualizing a firm this way helps people believe they can do things they didn’t think possible and that they can push themselves well beyond their own expectations. With a wry smile, he told the analysts, “Believing is seeing.”

This post first appeared in the Wharton Leadership Digest.