by Jason Richmond, CEO and Chief Culture Officer at Ideal Outcomes, Inc.
A few months ago, the news of the dramatic rescue of a stranded Malaysian climber on the slopes of Mount Everest by a Sherpa (a Tibetan mountain climbing guide) made international headlines. Over six hours, the heroic Sherpa acted as the stricken climber’s eyes, ears, and strength as he carried him more than 1,000 feet down the mountain to safety.
Every year, Sherpas navigate and steer the success of thousands of treacherous climbing expeditions up the most challenging peaks in the world. This is no job for the faint of heart. Success in this field calls for tactical expertise, precise planning and focus, and physical and mental resilience.
But Sherpas also need a healthy dose of soft leadership skills: their responsibilities often extend to carrying loads for those who falter or finding the right encouraging words for climbers tempted to give up.
Leadership Lessons from Sherpas
Let’s take a moment to consider some powerful business leadership lessons we can learn from Sherpas.
Remain in Deep Listening and Learning Mode
Sherpas plot the best possible route to the summit for those on the climb with them, scrutinizing the weather forecast and checking the terrain for the amount and type of snow, ice, and rocks. They must carefully consider data points from various sources (external conditions, the base camp, and their climbers) and, based on these factors, determine when it’s time to camp and when it’s time to proceed. It’s not uncommon for Sherpas to encounter emergencies in the form of natural disasters or predators, and they need to know how to make quick adjustments to prevent any major setbacks.
Just as good Sherpas stay attuned to influences and developments, skilled leaders can embrace deep listening and learning as a constant state of operation. The idea isn’t just to gather data but to actively listen to incoming signals from your team. This careful attention and presence can help you highlight upcoming wins or flag potential roadblocks, and positions you to be responsive rather than reactive.
Listening is a catalyst for informed, agile decision-making. Think of your team as climbers: they’re experts in their specific tasks, but may lack the broader perspective and insights that you can provide as a leader. Regular check-ins and feedback loops can serve as your base camp for observations.
Moreover, great leaders are experts at listening at a macro level as well: they’re experts at trend analysis, market dynamics, and competitive landscapes. By continually ‘checking the weather’ of the business climate, you can not only react to disruptions but anticipate them, and adapt strategies for resilience and growth.
Embody Courage, Calm, and Positive Energy
Sherpas require considerable strength and spirit to make potentially life-altering decisions day after day. Climbers rely on their decision-making process, and also expect these guides to express themselves in a calm yet decisive manner, even in times of crisis.
In the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal Earthquake, when an entire expedition team was clinging to life, one Sherpa maintained his focus and displayed his commitment to his climbers throughout the emergency. Afterward, he commented this moment of crisis is when you need to focus on making “new decisions” and counteracting any “new problems” that could arise. He also stated that as a leader, it’s vital to “concentrate and do the right things positively.”
In the corporate world, leaders can sometimes find themselves at similar crossroads in critical moments. How you respond to these challenges sets the tone for the entire organization and serves as an example to the rest of your team. Authentic leaders embody a combination of qualities: courage to face the tough decisions, calm to navigate through them, and a positivity that motivates the team towards solutions. This management style can have a powerful influence on the people around you.
Leaders who emphasize the ‘can-do’ attitude encourage innovation and risk taking. In an atmosphere of optimism and trust, your team is more likely to think up creative solutions that are outside the box. It’s like the Sherpa encouraging a weary climber to take one more step with the conviction that each step brings the summit within reach.
Balance Confidence with Humility
For Sherpas, confidence is an essential psychological skill that enables effective decision making and enhances their ability to deal with the many pressures of the mountain environment.
However, too much confidence can be detrimental to achieving the goal. Any Sherpa with overconfidence may stop reassessing situations after an original decision due to the belief that the decision remains correct in spite of ever-changing conditions. But great Sherpas are humble; they respect the mountain and prioritize the well-being and safety of their team of climbers.
In the organizational landscape, the lessons on balancing confidence and humility ring especially true. Effective leaders are confident in their vision, strategy, and teams. This confidence inspires trust and fosters an environment where excellence is not just expected but carefully cultivated. However, great leaders also pair this confidence with an equal measure of humility, fully aware that the market, team dynamics, and even their own understanding is subject to change.
As a leader, you propel a team towards ambitious goals, but you also know when to pause, reassess, and even pivot when necessary. You understand that position doesn’t make you infallible; it makes you even more accountable. Effective leadership demonstrates agility and adaptability, not just in strategy but also in thought—embracing feedback, learning from missteps, and continually refining your approach.
This balance between confidence and humility creates a pathway toward what could be termed ‘organizational resilience.’ Work projects or fiscal quarters are not individual milestones in a vacuum; they are interconnected stepping stones in an organization’s journey. Each ‘climb’ provides lessons for the next, shaping a more adaptable and robust organization.
Let Those You Guide Be the Heroes of the Journey
The first quest to summit Mount Everest was accomplished in May 1953. Most recognize Sir Edmund Hillary (not his accompanying Sherpa Tenzing Norgay) for this achievement, despite the pair letting the world know it was a team effort.
Still today, we seldom hear about a Sherpa when a climber reaches the top of Everest with their help, even if the Sherpa has made the climb dozens of times. Sherpas don’t celebrate how many times they reach the summit but how many times they’ve helped others get there.
This principle carries weight in the context of leadership. Great leaders recognize their ultimate responsibility is not to be the heroes of the story but to empower their team members to become heroes in their own right. This recognition is more than just modesty—it is a transformative leadership style that prioritizes the growth, success, and recognition of the team over individual accolades.
When your people reach their personal and professional summits because of your support and guidance, celebrate their wins and contributions! Your real job is to lead others to the top, and outstanding leadership means nothing without the team of people rallying behind you and following in the path that you have laid out.
Find Your Inner Sherpa Leadership
Just like Sherpas navigating the way for others, true leadership is about the collective journey. Don’t lead from afar, but instead climb the mountain and become renowned for your ability to help others achieve heights and surpass limits beyond what they thought was possible. Your role is to provide your team with the mental capital and encouragement required to get ahead, stay ahead, and lead your organization to the summit.
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