Lessons from an Expedition

Leadership in business has much in common with leadership in other spheres. I frequently find parallels with the challenges I face when leading expeditions.

A simple example is the metaphor of a night navigation exercise:

It is difficult to know where you are and the way ahead is not clear. You have little more to rely on than your own perception and judgement. You have to learn to recognise signs and you have to develop your own techniques. After making many mistakes, this becomes easier and with experience you become more able to see through the uncertainty of your environment.

A few years ago I was leading a group of young people in Northern India. The following story reminded me of the importance of humility in leadership.

My team had arrived at the high point of the trek, a sacred lake on the top of a mountain, above 4000m. We had set up camp and I was just getting into my sleeping bag to take some rest. At that moment, 3 members of my group came up to my tent and said, we’re just going up to the peak, its only about 200m over there, we could see the flag at the top.

I didn’t want to say no, but I knew the risk, so I said, ‘ok, I’m coming too’. I grabbed my bag containing emergency equipment, put on my boots and we set off together. It was a spontaneous thing – and the kind of moment that makes a whole trip worthwhile to some individuals.

It was quite misty but we could see the flag ahead, the mist came lower but we carried on picking our way over the rocks. It wasn’t far and we continued towards the peak, I was leading now and feeling pleasantly impressed with the route I had selected. Before long we arrived at the flag only to find that it was not the top of the mountain, but a warning sign saying ‘keep away from here, you’re on the edge of a precipice’.

Safely, we came back down.

As I returned to my tent and this time did settle into my sleeping bag to rest, I was reminded of a line from Kahlil Gibran’s book, ‘when you have reached the mountain top, then you begin to climb’. My journey as an expedition leader is characterised by this theme. Every time I become confident in my performance I receive a gentle challenge that makes me realise that my journey is just beginning.

The night navigation metaphor works for me as an executive coach. We have to accept that no matter how certain we feel about where we are, we are still operating in an environment characterised by uncertainty.  Making mistakes is inevitable and learning from them is possibly the most important skill to master.

Sometimes it is humiliating, but humility is important if you want to be able to read the signs and make accurate judgments about where you are and what to do next.