High Altitude Leadership

Is there a biological basis for leadership?  Yes, says Don Schmincke, mountain climber and author of the new book High Altitude Leadership.  Furthermore, the basics of leadership have not changed in the past thousand years and more.


I believe the latest brain science backs him up.

Don refers to his mountain climbing expeditions as “laboratories” — ways to use the life-or-death challenges to strip away the superficial and reveal what he calls the biological triggers for leadership.  Don believes his discoveries about the genetic and biological bases of leadership are politically incorrect, and scientifically true.

His prior work was on genetic evolution and what it can tell us about leadership.  Prior to that he did research on samurai warriors and their leadership lessons.

Don’s biggest surprise in working on the book was to find that there’s nothing truly new — the last thousand years of writing about leadership have already explored the basics, and subsequent writers have at best elaborated on them, or re-phrased them.

Instead, he was surprised to find a theme of “danger avoidance” as a key element of leadership.  This was a theme that linked together much more common elements around cowardice, greed, comfort, arrogance, and fear of death.  This “danger avoidance” theme connected the dots for Don in a new way.
Consider the “fear of death” and how that fear can freeze people.  Don first noted this in his anthropological research and in his study of samurai.  When you fear death, you can become paralyzed, yet when you accept your death as inevitable, you become liberated and powerful.

This actually happened on K2 as he was working on the book.  On Summit Day, one of the sherpas died.  It shook Don and his entire party.  “I think I’m on the wrong mountain,” he said to his partner at the time.  And K2 is a truly dangerous mountain — it kills 1 out of 5 people on the way up and another 1 out of 7 on the way down.

Yet, when they simply accepted the fact of this death and of the risks they were running, they found themselves suddenly able to move forward.

This has happened in the world economy — companies have died, customers have died, careers and projects have died, and people will cling to them and be afraid and be frozen.  When we accept the reality of the loss of such things, we become able to move on.

Another parallel was the appearance in the 2009-2010 economic collapse of flaws like greed and arrogance.  We still see those flaws in some of the bailed-out firms.

The Power of Stories
Don has good news — there are ancient techniques that humans have used for years to overcome these human flaws.  One of the most powerful is to tell sagas and stories.

Leaders used to spend a lot of time ensuring that there was some sort of important drama or story in front of their people.

In modern times we try to remove all drama from the workplace — and our change efforts report between 70% and 100% failure.

Rather than remove all drama, we need to create and craft uplifting and inspiring drama.  We need to call people to something higher than their own concerns.  This isn’t about an uplifting mission statement or a motivational poster — it’s a story about persevering, sacrificing, and making the world better.

We need to start teaching story telling in business schools.

Consider any company that’s faced bankruptcy – like Apple – and look at the “why” of what they were doing. Look at their sacrifices.  Today we see them zooming past their competition.

The “what and how” are important yet trivial — the “why” is vital and energizing.  And it’s tremendously hard — it’s an art.  There’s no color by numbers technique, no simple method, for creating the uplifting story.  That’s a hard thing for some folks to hear, and we get seduced by our tools and methods because at least they are easy to figure out.

Resist that.  A lot of climbers — and companies — get seduced by their tools, and die.

Blinding Flashes of the Obvious
Don finds that his lessons are grasped by his audiences intuitively and immediately.

Often successful business people find, after a few years, that they no longer have the passion and drive they used to have — that work isn’t fun any longer.  They say “my life has been reduced to process and tasks.”

One way out of that is to look at a calendar and figure out how many days you have left to live, and decide how you want to spend your life.  People need passion.  Give it to them, or they will fill their time with their own petty dramas.

When some people retire and lose their purpose, some of them get sick or die.

As Victor Frankl put it, we can put up with any What for the right Why — and leaders provide the Why that keeps people engaged and active and excited and motivated.  When people have a saga — something significant still to do in their lives — they survive longer.

Don’t Forget Luck
We want to overlook the role that luck can play.  Don’t believe that.  There’s a lot of luck in both success and failure, and the people who are doing better than you may not be doing anything smarter than you.  Never count on luck either.  Pick your best course, and don’t let someone else’s short term success persuade you you’re wrong.


Listen to the interview here.
Tagged with: , , , ,