Maxwell, C. “Uncertainty and Trust: Leadership Lessons at High Altitude.” Wharton Leadership Digest 9, no. 1 (October, 2004). Reprinted with permission.
Jack Turner, author of “Teewinot: Climbing and Contemplating the Teton Range” and veteran mountain guide, suggests that a variety of experts have come to help protect us from personal and financial uncertainties. Career counselors, property agents, and investment managers reduce our risks by guiding or even making critical decisions for us. But when venturing up a mountain, Turner observes, the uncertainties become more directly experienced.
With the many protective layers of expert guidance stripped away, mountaineers learn to face and manage uncertainties themselves. And since mastering decision making in a challenging environment is essential for effective leadership, we have developed a program that uses mountaineering to prepare future leaders for making decisions under duress. The annual program is designed around ascending the Grand Teton, a mountain of 13,770 ft. in Wyoming. As part of the Wharton Leadership Ventures program, we arrange for twelve undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to attempt to reach the Grand Teton summit via a challenging climbing route.
In 2004, under adverse weather conditions including fresh snowfall, six of the participants did achieve the Grand Teton summit. And along the way they came to appreciate that reaching a summit, whether real or metaphorical, requires trust among those working to get there. That in turn depended upon openness, reliability, respect, and integrity.
Stephanie Buswell, a university nursing student, recalled in looking back on her experience on the mountain: "I wanted to be removed from my comfort zone in order to fully challenge myself both physically and mentally. I found I had to focus on trust: trusting my feet, the equipment, the individual belaying me, the weather, the rock, our guides, and trusting each other. I found I could not have any reservations about any of these factors or else I simply would not get up the mountain." She did get up the mountain.