Maxwell, C., & Read, A. “Leadership at the Sharp End of the Rope: Guiding Guides.” Wharton Leadership Digest 11, no. 2 (November, 2006). Reprinted with permission.
Tie into the end of the rope, step off the ledge, and you are committed to the climb. All of your senses suddenly come into focus. The wind is louder in your ears, the rock rougher beneath your fingers, the smell of your own sweat sharper in your nostrils. Adrenaline flows, and you tingle with the thrill of meeting nature's wildest challenges. You have voluntarily entered the realm of high adventure.
Mountains have always had a strong allure and, more than ever before, novice climbers are hiring professional guides to help them ascend the summits of their dreams. For the climbers, mountaineering promises intense but rewarding challenges, as well as valuable lessons in self-discovery and teamwork. For the professional guides who lead the climbs, the task is to rapidly build and train teams of climbers who often have little or no experience climbing big mountains.
Creating an effective team requires a skill set very different from the technical skill set mountaineers need to scale a peak. Successful guides are not just talented mountaineers: they are also skilled leaders. To build a team that can reach a summit with just a few days training, a guide must be able to instill an appreciation for risk in an uncertain environment, build trust, communicate effectively, and teach during difficult moments. These four abilities are also critical for success in the business environment.
Exum Mountain Guides, America's oldest and most prestigious guide service, based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, requires all new and second-year guides to complete an annual training program to build team leadership skills. This year's guide training program was held high in the Teton mountain range in late June, just before the summer climbing season began. Fifteen aspiring guides, including one U.S. Marine Corps Force Recon veteran, climbed under the close supervision of senior guides.
Ensuring Safety in an Uncertain Environment: As a professionally guided climbing team ascends towards the summit, it's the guide who leads, unprotected, at what climbers call "the sharp end of the rope." The primary responsibility for mountain guides is to ensure the safety of their charges -- and themselves. Exum guides teach clients basic technical climbing techniques and also require them to tie into a rope and wear a helmet, a waist harness and climbing shoes with sticky rubber soles, according to Stephen Koch, one of Exum's senior guides.
"Technical climbing requires each climber to demonstrate competence at belaying, which means protecting the climber above and below with the rope," said Koch. Guides may not take a belay in normal conditions on moderate terrain unless the weather turns harsh, bringing snow, lightning, high winds or rockfall; on difficult terrain, a belay is a must. A guide's most serious responsibility is protecting clients, which also means protecting him or herself, as a serious fall by the guide could be disastrous for the entire party. Dave Carman, another senior guide, reminded guides about their teaching technique high on the rocks: "Don't turn your back to the edge. If there's danger, you want to face it. You're the leader -- and you're vulnerable all day."
Building Trust and Responsibility: Jack Turner, senior guide, focused on the importance of the guide's leadership in establishing trust among all members of the climbing team. In the uniquely American system of guiding developed at Exum over more than seven decades, an egalitarian spirit of client involvement based on trust and responsibility exists, and Exum works hard to maintain that tradition. "Climbing is a trust sport," said Turner. "You need to trust your gear, your partners, your feet, and yourself." Guides demonstrate the importance of trust by teaching client teams to safely secure each other, for example, during multi-pitch climbs on ascents of the Grand Teton. Trust and responsibility are intertwined as a team progresses up the rock face: Each climber must place full trust in the climber ahead and take responsibility for the climber behind. The result? Teams that reach the summit do so with a sense of accomplishment and self-worth.
Demanding Clear and Consistent Communication: Evelyn Lees, senior guide, focused on the need for clear and direct communication in the mountains. All Exum guides instruct their clients to use the same verbal commands during climbing, with no exceptions: "That's me, Jack!" "Climb, Evelyn!" "Climbing, Jack!" The value of such simple and repetitive communication is easy to recognize when one climber on the rope is high above and out of sight. Add in wind and storm factors and clear communication between climbers roped together quickly becomes a matter of life or death.
Developing Teaching Skills: Exum guides spend a great deal of time teaching so that clients can take responsibility for each other on the summit climb. Client teams generally complete a two-day mountaineering school in preparation for a climb of the 13,770 foot Grand Teton. Turner notes, "Most of our climbers have just learned in school what we then ask them to do on the Grand." Andy Tyson, 37, a second-year Exum guide whose prior experience includes ten years as a mountaineering instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School, said, "Exum's core program really encourages guides to teach rather than just guide. That makes both parties happy. The client is engaged and contributing, and the guide gets to know the clients and understand their abilities better."
Putting Lessons Learned Into Practice: Business leaders, like guides, can build effective teams by helping others operate safely in an environment of uncertainty, fostering trusting relationships, communicating clearly and consistently, and teaching others during challenging experiences.
For John Sims, a Merrill Lynch Global Private Client Vice President who reached the summit of the Grand Teton as a member of a guided team this summer, operating in the uncertain environment of his industry means giving his team members the confidence to work through complex financial models before challenging their assumptions and saving discussions for when the projections are delivered. "There are uncertainties inherent in trying to predict behaviors fifteen months out, so it's about recognizing those unknowns exist," Sims said. "People have to know they can come to you with a serious issue and trust you to help them resolve it. I have used the analogy of being roped together as a team, the constant cycle of trusting while climbing on belay then being responsible as the anchor, numerous times since I came back from Wyoming."
Sims acknowledged that communication with his team members is key. "A lot of my job involves interpreting the issue one of my team is explaining, then deciding how best to communicate it and to whom," he said. By providing challenging experiences for junior staffers, which inevitably include making mistakes and learning from them, said Sims, "we've come full circle to the uncertain environment, and trust and communication issues I faced in climbing the Grand Teton."
Andy McGinnis, another Merrill Lynch Vice President and first-time Grand Teton climber, also sees the parallels between business and guiding. "Success in both business and climbing is achieved through a unique combination of individual contribution and teamwork," he said. "Reaching the summit of the Grand Teton required our team to work seamlessly, as we belayed each other, checked each other's equipment, and provided encouragement along the way. But each of us also had to climb to the top of the mountain under his or her own power. In my job, estimating my business' earnings is very similar. To be successful, I must work with my colleagues across the business to obtain the best information possible. At the same time, my individual contribution to the final product will have a direct effect on the team's success."
Climbing big mountains affords even novice climbers the opportunity to gain a new perspective on leadership and teamwork, and team members frequently reflect on these lessons long after the experience itself is over. Less often noticed is the way in which expert mountain guides help teams overcome the many challenges along the way. Guides, in fact, provide a new and useful model for leadership in business: Leading like a guide means showing the way, at the sharp end of the rope, while building individual competencies and mutual accountability in each team member.