Leadership Lessons From Mt. Everest

Here is a great article about differences in leadership, and what it really takes to "reach the top." Team after team of climbers had been sent to conquer Everest, and none had made it. Eric Shipton, a gentleman-adventurer who had tried several times before, was to lead a team again, but the committee overseeing the expedition had other thoughts.

The committee didn't want another romantic failure—something gentleman-adventurers excelled at. So just six weeks after choosing Shipton, it did the unthinkable: It turned around and fired him. In the ensuing uproar, one climber withdrew. Others protested Shipton's replacement: a career military man whose very name conveyed lack of dash. "Who is this John Hunt?" Hillary asked at the time.

Yet the committee had done something more profound than replace one man with another. It had replaced an old idea with a new one. This new idea was reshaping British industry, where the ideal of the gentleman capitalist—an untutored amateur who relied on character and talent to get the job done—was running up against reality. The modern corporation was simply too big and complex for one man to run. Everest was big too. It required a new method—what some were calling the art of organization.

Col. John Hunt was the very picture of the modern professional manager. A demon for logistics, he specified that each box of rations contain 29 tins of sardines. His strategy—soon to become standard in mountaineering—called for an army of climbers, Sherpas, porters, and yaks that would methodically move up the mountain, shuttling supplies to ever higher camps. Hunt gave the human element systematic attention as well. Everest demands an "unusual degree of selflessness and patience," he later wrote. "Failure—moral or physical—by even one or two [people] would add immensely to its difficulties." The desire to reach the top, he added, "must be both individual and collective." That last point was important: The goal of this huge effort was to deliver just two climbers to the summit.

John Hunt was successful because his goal wasn't to be the superstar who reached the top. His goal was to figure out how to get two climbers there, and make sure it happened. Here's how it applies to companies today:

Is the lesson here that the world needs more John Hunts—diligent organization builders content to dwell in the shadows of others? (He did, at least, get knighted.) Actually, the world has plenty of John Hunts; the problem is that boards of directors don't pick them. Star-struck with charisma and style, they pick Eric Shiptons. That's why the unsung hero of Everest isn't an individual at all, but a board of directors. By redefining the expedition as a corporate effort—and having the backbone to take the criticism that followed—the Himalayan Committee built the ultimate platform for success.

Unfortunately, the most qualified people don't always make it to the top of a corporation. Too often, it is the superstars who want the position out of vanity that get the CEO job. A willingness to give others the limelight is, in my opinion, one trademark of a great CEO. Great CEOs are more concerned with getting things done that with being heroes. Great leaders know that they depend on their followers just as much as their followers depend on them. Corporate boards need to pick someone who loves the job for the challenge – not for the glory.

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This reminds me of the Salomon scandal in the early 90s. Warren Buffett had to come in as interim CEO and straighten things out, and he picked Deryck Maughan to succeed him as CEO when he was finished. In the book "Of Permanent Value," Buffett recalls that Maughan took the job without ever asking about the compensation. It wasn't about the money. It was about something greater. That, to me, is the mark of a great business leader.