It was about 4:30 a.m. when Christian, our instructor, rousted us from our tents. It was the eighth day of a grueling 10-day Outward Bound program and we faced the ultimate challenge: we were to summit Mount Massive by noon and return 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. It was a 14-mile round-trip hike, so we had our work cut out for us.
After a quick breakfast and pep talk by Christian, we were off on our journey, backpacks strapped on, and flashlights guiding our every step.
The first half of the climb went flawlessly. It was especially exhilarating to experience the sunrise, and the resulting warmth on our faces as we slowly weaved through a field of aspen trees. Everything was just so beautiful.
But then, without warning, a loud cry echoed through the trees. I followed the sound and saw Valerie rolling on the ground, clutching her ankle.
“Are you okay?” screamed David, as he rushed toward her.
“I’m fine; don’t worry about me,” Valerie called, loud enough so others wouldn’t keep repeating the same question. Valerie was a trooper, and she wanted to reach the top of Mount Massive as much as anyone. In fact, aside from me, the other nine participants were from outside of Colorado and had never climbed a fourteener. For them, succeeding was not just a physical challenge; it gave them major bragging rights when they returned home. So, reaching the summit was not an option—it was a mandate.
For the next hour or so, Valerie downplayed her injury, although her slight hobble had become a very noticeable limp. The group’s pace had slowed significantly and sometimes we had to stop as Valerie tried to regain her composure. “I’ll get through this,” she kept saying to anyone who would listen.
Before long, the rest of the group was exchanging glances and expressing concern and frustration. It was becoming apparent that our goal of reaching the summit was in jeopardy; yet no one wanted to admit or entertain that possibility. Finally, Jonathan broke the silence. “This is not working!” he said. The group gathered around.
“Then go without me,” Valerie said. Tears welled up in her eyes.
“Hold on a second,” said Kelly, Valerie’s closest friend. “This is a group decision.”
Within seconds we were arguing over our options, and what was the “right” thing to do. Voices were raised, people were talking over each other, and no one was listening. We were fighting on the mountain. Half the group was pushing to abort the hike and take Valerie back to camp; while the other half, including Valerie, wanted to press on, albeit at a much slower pace.
All the while, Christian watched from afar, curious to see how the group dynamics would play out. Finally, after no progress, he approached us. “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.
Our group was so engrossed in our dilemma that we acquiesced. We got up, and kept arguing as we moved to the spot Christian had chosen. Even our semicircle seemed to stay intact. Interestingly, no one, including myself, questioned his request for us to move. Clearly, we were completely oblivious to our surroundings and his guidance.
Christian, on the other hand, was very aware. He knew the mountain very well and noticed that in our initial attempt to problem solve, we had all positioned ourselves in a semicircle that faced down the mountain. We were primarily looking at where we had been, not where we were headed. Even our conversation had a downward, negative energy—as we assigned blame, took sides, and felt divided.
But now, instead of facing down toward the base of Mount Massive, Christian had moved us to a spot that faced uphill, with the sun radiating off the summit. It was the most spectacular sight I’d ever seen. It also was the first time any of us had seen the top of the mountain that day. From our new angle, we could see the trail all the way to the top, making the remaining distance seem much more doable than we imagined. I could not only see the summit, I could smell it, taste it, and almost touch it. I could visualize being at the top.
Without any acknowledgment of what had changed, the group dynamics shifted instantaneously. All of our blaming, arguing, and negativity were replaced with excitement, amazement, and optimism. Our conversation moved from debating two options to a synergistic conversation on how to summit with Valerie setting the pace.
It’s amazing that Christian never explained his actions on the mountain that day. And yet, his subtle gesture of changing the backdrop of our discussion, provided the most profound insight and lesson around the importance of vision that I’ve ever experienced.
I am also happy to report that the whole group successfully summited Mount Massive, just minutes before an afternoon storm engulfed us. We accomplished this by carrying all of Valerie’s gear for her and having her lead the group all the way up to the top.
In the end, reaching the summit wasn’t nearly as significant for me as the transformation that we, as a group, went through in order to get there. We couldn’t have made it without Christian’s gentle guidance, and without the powerful vision of Mount Massive appearing as we bickered 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 so alive that it penetrates every pore.
2) I learned that groups handle adversity better when there is an overriding vision and purpose that unites them.
3) I learned the significance of focusing on where we’re headed (as an individual, group, or organization) versus where we’ve been.
And most importantly,
4) I learned that leadership through action can be 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.
* This story is from Geese’s new book, It’s All About Me.