What CEOs Can Learn from World-Class Mountain Guides

gettyimages-182188521-compressor1. Guides demonstrate social intelligence, the ability to build and maintain positive relationships. As expedition participants struggle to reach their objectives through all manner of adversity, guides need to establish personal relationships that don’t fracture easily. Christian Hoogerheyde, a project manager at Socrata, said his Icelandic guide’s social skills continue to “serve as a lesson to me every time I try to establish a new client’s trust.”

2. Guides are adaptable, and smoothly change their leadership style as conditions on the mountain change. Doug Coombs, a two-time world extreme ski champion and guide, would teach his clients in the lodge before setting out on an adventure, coaching them on steep snow slopes, and guiding them steadily when things got tough in the field. Seychelle Hicks, a team manager at BloomReach, said her guide experience helped her to more efficiently “adapt to our customers, resourcing demands, and building a self-directed team—and only jumping in when needed.”

“Whether it’s a skill we’ve had to learn from a tough life like many of the world’s poorest populations, or from mountain climbing, functioning and thriving in uncertainty is something we’re all able to learn.”

3. Guides empower others to reach their own summits. Seven Summits guide Jim Williams said, “Creating the environment that allows a climber to do their best and perform at the highest level possible is the ultimate measure of success as a guide.” Edmund Reese, VP and CFO for U.S. consumer card products at American Express, said, “The leadership lessons taught by both the guides and the mountain itself have honed my focus on embracing the front lines. If we build leadership in others, we develop a stronger line and an overall stronger organization.”

4. Guides are trust-builders. On an expedition with MBAs to remote Navarino Island at the very tip of South America, Chilean guide Feña Yañez told me, “Modeling what trust means is key. It’s never about talking about things. It’s about showing them.” Expedition participant John Sims, Partner and CFO at Snowden Lane, said, “Without trust in your teammates, you only will do as much as faith in your own limited abilities will take you.”

5. Guides are risk-aware and function well in conditions of uncertainty. Lyndsey Bunting, now director of financial analysis at Birchbox, served in the Peace Corps in a remote area of Panama after leaving her job in investment banking. She said, “Whether it’s a skill we’ve had to learn from a tough life like many of the world’s poorest populations, or from mountain climbing, functioning and thriving in uncertainty is something we’re all able to learn.”

6. Guides see the big picture. The wisest guides take a holistic view of the climb. They know when to head for the summit and when it’s time to change directions and head down. Deborah Horn, a manager at Microsoft, said a fierce night storm ended her summit attempt on the Grand Teton. “At our night camp, our guide delivered the message that we would have to end our climb. I learned that even if the summit isn’t attained, the journey is just as valuable and rewarding as standing on the peak.”

CEOs who actively model the leadership strengths of mountain guides not only will enhance their own leadership, but also, as Edmund Reese of American Express said, “build leadership in others,” and “develop a stronger line and an overall stronger organization.”

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