It was around four-thirty in the morning when Christian, our instructor, rousted us from our tents. We were in the eighth day of a grueling ten-day Outward Bound program and were waking up to the ultimate challenge of summiting Mount Massive by noon and returning to camp before dusk. At 14,421 feet high, Mount Massive is the second highest peak in Colorado and the third highest peak in the United States. Given that it was a fourteen-mile round-trip hike, we knew we had our work cut out for us.
After a quick breakfast and pep talk by Christian, we were quickly off on our journey, backpacks in tow and flashlights initially guiding our every step.
The first half of the hike up the mountain went flawlessly. It was especially exhilarating experiencing the sunrise as we moved as a single unit amongst the pine trees. But then, without warning, we were jolted out of our fluid momentum when Valerie, one of the participants, suddenly cried out in pain. She had apparently tripped over a rock, spraining her ankle ever so slightly.
“Are you okay?” asked David, one of the participants.
“I’m fine; don’t worry about me,” shouted Valerie, loud enough so others wouldn’t keep asking the same question. Valerie was a trooper and wanted to reach the top of Mount Massive as much as anyone. In fact, aside from me, the other nine participants were all from out-of-state and had never climbed a Fourteener before. This task clearly was not just a physical challenge; it was about bragging rights when they returned home. For them, reaching the summit was not an option, it was a mandate.
For the next hour or so, Valerie continued to downplay her sprained ankle, but her slight hobble had turned into a very noticeable limp. As you might expect, the pace slowed and sometimes even came to a complete halt as Valerie tried to regain her composure. “I’ll get through this,” she kept saying to anyone who asked.
The rest of the group began exchanging glances with one-another, some indicating concern, some frustration. It was becoming apparent that the goal of reaching the summit was now in jeopardy. This was a possibility that no one wanted to admit or entertain–that is, until Jonathan spoke up. “Valerie, what’s going on?”
The tears in Valerie’s eyes spoke volumes and sparked off a discussion and then a debate amongst the group. Within minutes we found ourselves sitting in an impromptu semicircle, talking over each other, arguing over solutions and expressing disappointment for the predicament we were in. We were fighting on the mountain. Half the group was pushing to abort the hike and return to camp, while the other half, including Valerie, wanted to press on, albeit at a much slower pace.
It wasn’t long into the debate when Christian approached the group. He had been purposely observing the dynamics from afar and decided it was time to intervene. “I can see this is an important discussion to have right now,” he said. “But I’d like to suggest that you move this conversation to a new location,” as he pointed to a different spot on the mountain.
At this point our group was so engrossed in our debate that we just kept on talking as we moved to the place Christian had chosen and reformed our semicircle. None of us, including myself, had even thought to question the move–or Christian’s motives, for that matter. It was as if we were completely oblivious to our surroundings.
Christian, on the other hand, had a completely different take on what was happening. You see, he noticed that in our initial attempt to talk, we had all positioned ourselves in a semicircle that faced down the mountain. In other words, we were all primarily looking at where we had been, not where we were headed. What was particularly interesting was that the focus of our conversation at that time was on the perceived problem, assigning blame and taking sides on whose ideas were acceptable and whose were not.
But after we moved to the new location and settled down in the now familiar semicircle to continue our conversation, something felt very different…something had changed. Christian astutely had moved the group to an area where our view was now of the top of Mount Massive, instead of the bottom. In fact, not only was the summit in plain view, but from our new vantage point we could see the trail all the way up to the top. And then the oddest thing happened. Suddenly and without notice, the energy shifted and the group synergy that had been absent for most of the day kicked back in, magically changing the focus of our conversation to solutions of how to summit with Valerie. The tension, the negativity, and the arguing had given way to a sense of excitement, adrenalin, and hope.
The most amazing part of this story for me was the fact that never once did Christian explain his actions in moving us or provide any feedback about our dysfunctional dynamics. All he did was ask us to move to a different location. Yet his subtle actions that day had a profound impact on our group, our experience, and my perception of leadership and the importance of vision.
I am also happy to report that we did successfully conquer Mount Massive that day and as an intact group. We accomplished this by simply slowing our pace, carrying Valerie’s gear, and taking turns walking side-by-side with her, ready to help whenever called upon.
In the end, reaching the summit wasn’t nearly as significant as the transformation that we, as a group, had to go through in order to reach the summit. And that couldn’t have happened without Christian’s gentle guidance and without the powerful vision of Mount Massive being so prevalent during our conversation once we had switched locations on the mountain.
On that day I learned many lessons about leadership that I will never forget. Specifically:
1) I learned the importance of having a vision: a vision that is alive, that we can constantly see, feel, touch, and smell–a vision that is so meaningful that it penetrates every pore of who we are.
2) I learned that groups can handle adversity better when there is an overriding vision that ultimately ties them together.
3) I learned the significance of focusing on where we’re headed as organizations versus where we’ve been.
And most importantly,
4) I learned that leadership through action can be even more powerful than leadership through words.
Sometimes it may take 14, 421-feet in order to learn an important lesson, but trust me, it’s worth every step!