Why You Should Lead Like A Mountain Guide To Be Successful

Melanie Shudofsky (Leadership Development Coach) leading another mountaineer on a steep snowy mountain face against the backdrop of a glacier.

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Melanie Shudofsky (Leadership Development Coach) climbing on a steep snowy ridge.

Looking beyond theoretical leadership styles towards inspirational guiding.

When we think of the word ‘leadership’, we may see images in our heads of authoritative bosses telling others what to do. A boss who barks out orders or a micro-manager who has a working philosophy of “trust is good, but control is better”. We also might think of great leaders inspiring political change.
One thing is sure: different leadership styles are needed for different –situations, as has been described in many other articles. However, I would like to take you beyond those defined leadership styles towards one which inspires the people around such a leader towards success.

The start of looking beyond traditional leadership styles

At one of the organizations where I have worked, the team leader always provided the team members including me with instructional notes. These notes left no space in work to maneuver. The writing seemed innocent at first (saying “close the blinds when the sun is shining” or “before you leave early, first check with the other teams if they need additional help), but they grew to be about the work’s content and the team’s daily interventions as well. Slowly but surely, the micro-management poisoned the team spirit and the potential of every team member.

The way that the team leader carried out her leadership role triggered me to reflect more deeply on the different leadership styles, and the effect these styles can have on a team and its members. I decided to reflect on leadership from the invaluable perspective of a climber.

Once familiar with the fundamental theories on leadership, I started to talk with mountain guides with whom I have climbed. Almost in an instant, it became clear that these high-altitude guides walk a different path when it comes to leadership—an approach that sets out to guide people towards their own personal summit. By just talking to them about how they lead people in an environment with risks and dangers, a whole new perspective on leadership opened to me. And what an inspiring one that is. Let us have a closer look.

Mountaineering as a tailor-made metaphor for business challenges

It is only recently that those seeking peak performance and how best to respond to business challenges began drawing lessons from mountaineering and its guides. One of the most notable books written on this topic is Lead Like A Guide: How World-Class Mountain Guides Inspire Us to Be Better Leaders by Christopher I. Maxwell.

The book describes very well the six leadership strengths of world-class mountain guides in extreme mountain settings: 1) social intelligence, 2) adaptability, 3) empowering, 4) trust-building, 5) risk-awareness, and 6) big-picture thinking.

Leading like a guide ultimately focuses on developing the team (member) – and not just on reaching the summit by being pulled up on the guide’s rope, leaving no room (figuratively or literally) to manoeuvre.

I remember very well my first technical alpine climb in the Swiss Alps. Two years before, I had taken an alpine climbing course, followed by climbing Mont Blanc and several other high-alpine mountains. I had the basic knowledge of how to negotiate an alpine climb, of which my guide was aware. He had chosen a mountain to climb with me – a mountain that suited my skills.

To my surprise, it turned out this guide began to scold me as we moved up the mountain. The guide’s behaviour was bad enough that other guides noticed it and started to support me mentally by saying I had to ignore my guide’s scolding and stay focused as I was in fact doing very well.

Looking at the six leadership strengths mentioned earlier, this guide clearly was very much out of balance in guiding a team member. Besides lacking the skill of being socially intelligent and empowering, this guy had an overload of risk-awareness and projected on me his lack of confidence.

Michael Useem, who is the director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, states that you must be confident to face the risks involved with leading.

“One of the overriding themes is you need enormous self-confidence to be in a leadership position; it’s stressful, risky, and often unpleasant.”

At the same time, however, you must have the required technical skills and be well prepared to know what you will do.

It turned out my guide had never climbed this mountain before. A crucial leadership strength of trust-building was missing from the start. Without trust, leading on a technical mountain or in a high-stakes business can become a dangerous endeavour. Anthony Giddens, a great English sociologist, put it beautifully in words:

“Trust is precisely the link between faith and confidence.”

Trust, however, works both ways. Not just from the side of the guide, the leader, but also the team (member). Being socially intelligent also implies you have a radar for knowing to what extent somebody can trust a person. Being able to adapt accordingly and weigh the risks considering the bigger picture are crucial strengths in peak performance – whether on the mountain or in business.

I had learned some hard lessons from that first technical alpine climb with a guide. Firstly, I was more aware of the importance of gaining some knowledge of the leader before more intense interaction would occur. Gaining knowledge about the leader has as its goal the clearing of expectations from both sides. What is the person’s leadership style and experience? In which setting has this person done most of his leading? What does the person find most important in leading a team (member)?

Asking such questions opens a dialogue between the leader and the team. Often, the experience with a (so-called) leader goes exactly like during my first climb: unexpectedly, you come to experience the true nature of the person leading you. You discover this person assumes a leading role but lacks the guiding leadership style strengths.

The essence of leading like a guide and new leadership styles

Rather than just a manager or someone who “has all knowledge” or a boss who always makes sure to tell you exactly how to do things, how would it be to work for a leader who acts like and works as a guide? To have a manager who you can easily approach, who makes sure you are supported in your strengths and given the empowerment to do what you need to do to learn and succeed. A manager who you feel is there as a safety net – “You will have to solve this problem yourself, but I am there to back you up. I won’t let you fall.”

The ultimate act of leadership is helping others reach as high as they can.” (Maxwell)

Having the leadership styles and strengths of a guide is immensely influential in producing more leaders, not more followers. Helping others reach the top while understanding risk, being flexible in your leadership style, and keeping the bigger picture in mind – this ultimately creates a beneficial environment where you are guided to your own personal summit, whether in work or in life.

Of course, to become a leader like a guide takes some work and needs to develop over time. However, more and more people are reaching that point where we understand ourselves better and differently. We are becoming more aware of our own emotional and social intelligence.

How do I react to other people? Am I listening? Am I able to control my feelings, my anxiety, my temper? Am I empathetic with other people? Asking yourself such questions, learning from mistakes, moving your way up on the mountain, through an organization, up the corporate ladder, and observing good leaders and others who are not so good – all these provide valuable lessons towards becoming a leader like a guide.

The guiding power of system-wide inspiration

You will notice it in an instance, once you have been working for a manager or an executive who leads like a guide – they walk a different path. Instead of following the latest trends and clichés on leadership, they have the bigger picture in mind. Precise goal setting and communication is therefore the main thread, while individual team members are encouraged with enthusiasm to commit towards that goal with their skill-specific contributions.

As George Reed stresses: “(…) leaders must be systems thinkers who recognize the interdependence of everyone within the organization.” If one person is lagging behind, this unmistakably influences the other team members and their efforts

“Being transparent from the start builds the foundation of trust and confidence.”

Guiding provides direction to the team with enough freedom to manoeuvre. Intertwined with it all is the guide’s continuous awareness of the dangers involved. The higher that the guide moves up the mountain, or the executive moves up the corporate ladder, the more that potential threats loom on all sides.

Schmincke and Warner elaborate on the dangers leaders face while moving their way up. Despite what most think, it is not merely the outside factors that could be part of the emerging risks, but also the “internal dangers” emerging from within us while interacting with the outside world. We can speak, for example, of selfishness, arrogance, lone heroism, and wanting to stay in your comfort zone and not challenge yourself enough, amongst others. Like a guide, leaders are very much aware of these potentially emerging dangers from within while moving in an ever-changing environment.

The most essential ingredient in successful leading is that you are inspired yourself to lead like a guide. It will almost instantly positively affect the team and their skilled efforts to reach a goal will then bear fruit that much sooner.

Leading like a guide is your way towards business success

As I am reflecting on the many different mountain guides I have had, it is the two who were opposites that remain vivid in my memory. Both were successful in the sense that we reached the summit.

But speaking about success in all aspects – feeling safe, developing skills, working as a team, enjoyment, excitement, and the intense feeling of shared accomplishment – there is only one type of leadership that can be successful.

Looking at the opposites of leadership, on the one hand, I experienced those guides who lead mainly “by the rope”. There was one shared goal, but no shared mission to get there. It had to be precisely how the guide wanted me to move without considering my strengths and potential weaknesses. I recall those climbs being very rigid, no space for fun, and a tense progress up and down the mountain. It was solely about getting to the top and back.

On the other hand, there were those very few guides leading like a guide, resulting is us feeling safe while climbing, being part of a team, having space for fun, and gaining confidence in each other’s skills. We had the bigger picture in mind, the goal we were trying to reach, while being very aware of our every step to minimize unnecessary risks.

These latter climbs were tremendously successful. Firstly, because the way towards the summit encompassed our mutual skilled efforts, in every way, we felt we could not have climbed the route if it were not for the other person being there. We felt every step was an essential contribution to the whole. It was exciting, at times challenging, and also fun.

And precisely that is what remains after a hard day of climbing or work: the inspiration derived from an appreciative smile of your mountain guide, your manager, your boss that you have contributed to the goal with skilled effort. A radiant knowing that you are a crucial element in the whole. Experiencing a drive to continue, to do more, as the energy you put incomes back to you redoubled with the prospect of even better success to come.

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