Leadership Lessons from the Death Zone
A Review of Chris Warner and Don Schmincke’s High-Altitude Leadership: What the World’s Most Forbidding Peaks Teach Us About Success, Jossey-Bass, 2008
Climbing mountains is not a sport; it is a lifestyle. I am convinced of this because I am a rock climber myself. The peaks I have scaled are tiny compared to Mt. Everest. I have climbed no higher than a few thousand feet, never above the 26,000 feet mark that hails the beginning of the death zone. And lasting a few days at most, in such wild places as West Virginia, my climbing trips hardly merit being called expeditions. Yet I have had many epic and insightful adventures leading teams of students on these smaller-scale pursuits. They have provided me with a rich backdrop for reflection on leadership. When I saw the title “High-Altitude Leadership,” I knew I had to read it.
About The Book
“An expedition is a journey of physical, emotional, and intellectual brutality that kicks the crap out of you and in which the opportunity for things going wrong is built into the formula. Seeking high altitude leadership also promises to kick the crap out of you,” the authors tell us in the introduction. This book is a collaboration of mountaineer, entrepreneur, and owner of Earth Treks, Chris Warner, and climber, author, and founder of The SAGA Leadership Institute, Don Schmincke. The two men share experiences in the areas of climbing and entrepreneurship. After meeting on a climbing expedition, they discover that “the dynamics of mountaineering provide tailor-made metaphors for business challenges.” Warner and Schmincke team up to eventually deliver this transdisciplinary book about business leadership intensified by working in the death zone. They define high altitude leaders as “those who lead themselves and their teams to produce peak performance in the face of extreme challenges by overcoming the dangers not foreseen or addressed by current pop leadership theory.”
The key lessons of this book derive from “the dangers.” There are eight; and they are each exposed in separate chapters that include case studies, survival tips and key learnings. Warner and Schmincke start from the obvious truth that “dangers threaten every leader at some point in their journey.” The significance of these eight dangers of leading is that they magnify as leaders climb higher, either up the mountain or up the corporate ladder. A leader who deals with these key dangers effectively practices high altitude leadership. The eight dangers which high altitude leaders must face are: fear of death, selfishness, tool seduction, arrogance, lone heroism, cowardice, comfort, and gravity.
Fear of death causes a leader’s mind to freeze up. When that happens, the leader is unable to take decisive action. Death is the ultimate danger to mountaineers. In the business world, death is not (usually) physical. Rather, it occurs with the demise of a great idea, a plan, a career—or it means company bankruptcy. Fear of death can be conquered; the way to do so is by embracing it. The acceptance of death, as one possible outcome of a leadership action, frees and empowers a leader for innovation, decisiveness and action.
Selfishness is the egocentric leader behavior that can politically poison a team. Think withholding information, playing favorites, or protecting sacred cow projects. Warner and Schmincke discuss the dangerous, unproductive, and dysfunctional (DUD) conditions that exist in companies as a result of selfish behavior. They tell leaders to purge selfishness from themselves and from their team. This is a tall order. The recommended strategy for filling it is by creating passion in followers through telling of a compelling saga. The saga unifies, because it provides the team with something worth fighting for—to “die” for—and thus it increases productivity.
Tool seduction addresses the question, “are you using your tools, or are they using you?” This chapter exposes the high failure rate of implementing management fads, where tools replace the deeper work of adaptation to change. Leaders who successfully avert tool seduction can put their energies into planning for the unknown and continuously adapt to changing conditions.
Arrogance is apparent when leaders have so high an opinion of themselves that it will kill them. They fall into the metaphorical crevasse or they get backstabbed by their followers. “Arrogant leaders ignore warnings on mountains and in boardrooms.” They endanger themselves and their teams. The cure for a leader that is infected by arrogance is humility. But can an arrogant leader truly learn to become humble? Warner and Schmincke think so and provide some strategies. Humility makes it possible to admit to mistakes and failures, to learn from them, and to commit to a path of continuous improvement.
Lone heroism is in evidence when a leader uses the mantra: “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” Lone heroism causes weak teams, low accountability, misaligned direction, demoralization, and hostages. The resulting damage can be extensive. The remedy for lone heroism is partnership. Warner and Schmincke assert, “There are no more messianic leaders. The few who came before aren’t interested in working for your corporation. You’ll have to settle for creating powerful partnerships.”
Cowardice encapsulates a leader’s risk-avoidance behavior. Cowardice propels leaders to seek safety instead of peak performance. The counterforce to cowardice is bravery. Warner and Schmincke believe bravery can be instilled by shame, but comment that shaming people is no longer politically correct. They deride current managerial practices because they coddle followers and do not get the job done. High latitude leaders tell the truth and walk the talk.
Comfort leads to stagnation, and vice versa. Yet “great achievements sometimes require enduring extreme discomfort.” Thus Warner and Schmincke caution, “Don’t lead if you lack the willingness to be uncomfortable.” Their high altitude leaders are not seduced by the status quo. Rather, they inspire their teams to move onward and upward even when that path is downright unpleasant. This requires perseverance, combined with a good sense for when to retreat, rethink and return to face the challenge another day.
Gravity is the last of the dangers; it has the capacity to kill a leader who did everything right. Gravity simply exists. Just like bad luck. It is a metaphor for environmental variables a leader cannot control. The only countermeasure for gravity is good luck. While a leader can sometimes get lucky by chance, luck can also be created through several proven techniques. A leader can maximize chance opportunities by being open to new experiences or by following a gut instinct. Another method is to visualize a positive outcome.
In the final chapter of their book, Warner and Schmincke dare any aspiring high altitude leaders to ask themselves: “When have I laid it all on the line to make my dream come true?” They encourage the reader to consider the final lesson, “that high altitude leaders don’t seek to conquer the great goals; these are the results of their conquering themselves.”
What Is Integral About “High Altitude Leadership?”
Warner and Schmincke’s exploration of high altitude leadership is based on data from two domains, mountaineering and business. The integral framework is apparent in the fashion they examine these two domains. The authors use observations (external reality) as well as personal accounts (internal reality). They study expeditions and corporations as entities (collective reality); and they scrutinize their members, the mountaineers and professionals (individual reality).
The mountaineering case builds from Warner’s description of what an expedition is, how it operates, its scope, organization, and tools. This supplies the reader with an understanding of the social context in which high altitude leadership takes place. Excerpts from Warner’s travel diaries render “thick descriptions” of the internal realities of mountaineering expeditions, allowing the reader to see them through both, the cultural and intentional lenses. The journal entries selected for the book provide insights into the shared beliefs, values, norms, and moral judgments which shape expeditions. They also furnish a rich autobiographical account of Warner’s thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and reactions in the roles of both expedition member and leader. Warner’s diaries include observations of the physical condition and behavior of other climbers, some of which enacted leadership roles in their respective expeditions. These give the reader an additional, behavioral perspective on high altitude leadership. The business case unfolds in parallel to the mountaineering one, through anecdotes told in Schmincke’s voice.
Warner and Schmincke’s train of reasoning, in formulating the eight dangers, progresses from the data, to their analysis, to a synthesis of ideas from the two domains and from the literature. Indeed, some of the main tenets of the book have been discussed elsewhere, such as, staying alive through the dangers of leading (Heifetz and Linsky, 2002), or the relationship between peak performance and higher states of consciousness (Harung, 1999). Warner and Schmincke’s dangers have a clear behavioral focus, as do the interventions which the authors propose.
It is here, also, that the developmental nature of their approach emerges. The authors target, as primary readership of their book, business executives who already perform in leader roles. They show them how near-death experiences can sometimes trigger a higher, peak performance state. They propose behavioral adaptations to permanently advance business leaders, and through them, their teams and their companies, to a more highly developed stage of peak performance. Warner and Schmincke assert that consistent peak performance results in greater leader effectiveness, quoting as evidence the improved outcomes of executives and corporations trained in high altitude leadership.
Warner and Schmincke employ the four lenses of the integral framework throughout their discussion; and they depict two nested stages of development. Yet their final product, the leadership lessons, is almost exclusively focused in the behavioral quadrant. In my opinion their “new theory” is an integrally informed behavioral approach to leadership.
The strength of this book is in the combination of mountaineering tales told by Warner, with observations of corporate America recounted by Schmincke. I perceived it as a work of creative nonfiction. Death is the key to making the book such a seductively good read. The stories told by Warner in the style of excerpts from his expedition diaries, are sensationally dramatic case studies of decision-making in high altitude climbing teams. They are compelling not only because they are educational, but because they are vivid, engrossing accounts of his personal experiences of leadership and followership under the highest of stakes. I gobbled them up with morbid fascination. The examples woven in by Schmincke are expositions of similarly extreme corporate environments that he encountered in his consulting practice. I am less familiar with his arena and thought the business examples were less powerful than the mountaineering ones. Yet the lessons that the authors derive form this amalgamation resonate well with me, perhaps because many of them are familiar from the leadership literature. By examining them from the extreme perspective of high altitude leadership, the authors make such well-known leadership and management themes as passion, shared vision, adaptive change and continuous improvement fresh and relevant once again. The taste of adventure they gave me, in their highly readable writing style, had me finish this book in record time. I came away from it not as much with new knowledge or skill, but with a feeling—a sense of being invigorated and ready to take on new leadership challenges.
The book did not teach me how to lead an expedition or a business venture. Rather, it gave me a glimpse into my own untapped leadership capacities. I see this as the greatest impact that this book might have: to engage seasoned leaders in new developmental processes and personal growth. After all, climbing is not a sport—it is a lifestyle and so is leadership.
I find that “High Altitude Leadership” represents an integrally informed behavioral approach to leadership. This is the main reason why I am bringing the book to the attention of the readership of Integral Leadership Review. The authors, Chris Warner and Don Schmincke, followed their own advice by telling us a compelling saga about leadership. I recommend this book to fellow mountaineers and students and practitioners of leadership, and to anyone seeking inspiration from parables of death-defying feats.
Harung, H. (1999). Invincible Leadership: Building Peak Performance Organizations by Harnessing the Unlimited Power of Consciousness. Maharishi University of Management.
Heifetz, R., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading. Harvard Business Press.
Credits: The image of Chris Warner and Don Schmincke’s book jacket was downloaded from http://highaltitudeleadership.com/. The drawing of the author atop the south peak of Seneca Rocks is derived from a photograph taken by Diane Kearns, http://www.seneca-rocks.com/srcs_site/index/home.html. Christine L. Dvonch edited an earlier version of this review for English. Russ Volckmann, Ph.D., provided helpful comments and material.
About the Author
Dr. Regina E. Schulte-Ladbeck was born in the Ruhr valley industrial region of Germany. She is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh where she teaches and conducts research in astrophysics. While serving as the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies, Regina developed and then taught in the Arts and Sciences Leadership Certificate program. Regina is a passionate rock climber, and enjoys leading students from the Pitt Outdoors Club to the summit of Seneca Rocks. Regina’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org, her website ishttp://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~rsl/rsl.html and her blog is http://leadershiprocks.blogspot.com/.