Leadership on a Cliff

What was a harrowing descent had just become worse, the steep scree slope ended in a cliff of unknown dimensions. We had all bought into our guide’s decision to take the short-cut. Down was bad. Now we had to go back up. (from events recounted below…)

Leadership fascinates me. Of course, recommended flavors and real life often don’t seem to line up as neatly as rah-rah management guides try to make us believe. While it would be nice to think that every successful conclusion was due to good leadership and every failure was due to bad, the lessons tend to be individualistic, full of false positives and negatives. Often the ability of followers to succeed in spite of leadership inanities is a more fascinating process question. That’s why it was refreshing to see that the 8 management points (and 3 pitfalls) put forward by Google appeared to be good common sense backed by quantitative research.

Reading the 8 points reminded me of this little episode when I was a tad more physically adventurous than today:

Image of a scree slope in Rocky Mountain National Park

I believe this is from the trail in question, although memory may be playing tricks on me.

We reached our third peak of the afternoon via a razorback ridge that left two choices for falling – right and left. Some places narrow enough that even my teenage bones felt a tinge of anxiety.

We were later in the day than planned. Well past noon on exposed rock in an area that had been seeing regular afternoon lightning. We had pressed on because I, the youngest in the group, was stressed about notching my belt with more peaks. I needed to complete this hike to have a shot at Longs Peak later in the week.

Rick and Mary (real names lost in the fog I’m afraid) were at the other end of the spectrum, both in their 70’s and experienced hikers. Mary was looking to photograph a few last alpine blooms. Both attacked the difficult trail with quiet strength. In truth, they helped control the pace of our guide – at first slowing our tidy group of 8 and in the end speeding us up. Consistency is a hard thing to learn. Our guide paid attention.

I was unfamiliar with this type of trek. At dawn we were quickly out of the woods and crossing ankle-cracking rubble. Map and compass were our guide, all the peaks were out of site, captured in a stoney valley – the only indication that we were on the right path were successively more distant carin trail markers. Searching for the small pile of rocks that made up each carin we needed took time.

While breaking with a view at the third peak, Mike, our replacement guide, found a shortcut down to the rock strewn valley below. He was an experienced guide but had never traveled this trail before and truth-be-told he didn’t have a map properly scaled to make that kind of a call. The guide trained for this trip had taken sick that morning and Mike stepped up to the challenge. I liked him. As I recall he let me do a bit of the compass and map work early on. Leading with back-up is good practice for a kid. Builds confidence.

The shortcut looked simple enough. A scree slope leading down to the valley would help us avoid retracing our steps up and down the successive peaks. It made sense to me, but I wasn’t really experienced enough to recognize the look Mary and Rick gave each other. Mike gave us instructions on how to follow him. Mary described why we needed to follow his instructions closely. She’d been on this type of slope before.

Traveling down a slope of scree you take a diagonal path, hairpin turning at each edge of the passable slope. It is critical to keep the line of hikers from traveling above one another, so you pause at each turn, hopefully on a stable enough piece of rock.

Three dangers confront you on this type of slope.

  1. Loosing your footing and sliding or rolling down the slope.
  2. Knocking a batch of scree lose and sliding down the slope with the rubble.
  3. Being hit from sliding rocks coming from above.

While the slope looks like small stones and gravel, truth is there are plenty of rocks large enough to do serious damage once they pick up steam. I think we were about half-way down when I began to feel like we had made a mistake. The footing was becoming worse, the slope was gradually increasing. Yet even with the gradual increase in slope, it was becoming obvious that something below us was missing.

Because the rubble field was the same shade all the way to the valley below, a cliff of at least 30 feet was hidden from view.

What was a harrowing descent had just become worse, the steep scree slope ended in a cliff of unknown dimensions. We had all bought into our guide’s decision to take the short cut. Down was bad. Now we had to go back up.

Mike knew he had made a mistake. You could read it in his posture. He was responsible for us. Learning that the cliff was there meant that a mistake that was likely have resulted in serious injury now would end in death. No slips allowed. No mistakes.

Rick and Mary were tight lipped. Mike’s decision would not have been their’s and now it had reached a dead end. An easy point of accusation and disarray. But there was no fighting, no accusation. Mike, Rick and Mary discussed what needed to happen with the group and we started our way back up. Now Rick and Mary were leading and Mike taking what was the more dangerous position, below the group. I’d never really thought of that as a conscious decision, but today, I’m pretty sure it was.

Through skill and a bit of luck we reached our earlier trail without serious incident. Mike had to shout encouragement to a few in our band to keep the line moving. We all had to step to the directions given, follow the safer placed foot falls of the leading hikers. For a group of eight who had only met that morning it was a nicely performed extraction.

Reaching a cliff and Google’s 8 Good Behaviors

The thing about leadership is – sometimes you lead people into a bad situation. Leading them out again is a neat trick and Google’s management points can help make that more likely to happen.

For example – #5 Be a good communicator and listen to your team. We all have things to learn. It is likely that the folks you are leading know at least a few things you don’t. Mike listened to Rick and Mary – sometimes subconsciously as with the pacing and sometimes explicitly as when we were stuck.

Or #8 Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team. Mike was a skillful guide who made a mistake. He also had the knowledge and experience necessary to mitigate that mistake. When you are put in a position to manage a particular project it behooves you to understand all aspects of the technology, processes and manufacturing elements. You can’t manage if you don’t know what your team is doing. Walking down and up that slope of scree would have been a disaster if we had not done it technically correct. Stones fell. We didn’t.

Or #1 Be a good coach. Scouting has this down to a science. Teaching, feedback, providing opportunity for experience. When Mike let me lead the group it gave me a feel for making decisions in an environment where I knew he wouldn’t let me screw-up to seriously. He did have fun letting me head off in the wrong direction once or twice though.

Funny how vibrantly a memory can be sparked in an unusual way. Getting cliffed has been a story I’ve told in the past, but I’ve never quite given credit to the quiet leadership shown by both our guide and Rick and Mary. In our everyday lives sometimes great leadership is almost invisible. It prods us on because we want to follow, not because we have to.

 

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5 Responses to Leadership on a Cliff

  1. Kay Plantes says:

    I listened to a wonderful speech by Tom Hornbein (the first of two Americans to climb Mount Everest and the first or two men in the world to climb the the Western slope of Everest) discuss why so many had died on a fateful Mt Everest climb recently. It was all about how the performance of the team depends on the weakest link and the leadership skills of the leader. The deaths on Everest he said were due to people “paying” for the hike who lacked skills to do the climb (and who “helicoptered” in rather than build up stamina via trecking to the mountain; and, leaders who did not communicate with one another as they saw themselves in competition – whose team would get to the top first? And finally (of what I remember), leaders feeling pressure to “deliver” a summit to paying customers, even though they knew in their hearts that they should turn back. The story was an awesome lesson in leadership. Thanks for your great post, as always, Fred.

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  3. J.D. Meier says:

    > listen to your team
    I think that’s the only way to bring out the full power of your team.

    • Patricia says:

      I think this is important sharing and I appreciate you linking it to the climbing event.

      I am so often the weakest link in many situations that I appreciate it when I work in a team and we can all succeed with everyone’s efforts – and usually a grander success. Building a team is hard work these days with so many people being so impulsive and easily distracted.

  4. Hi Fred,

    I don’t think even Bear Grills (Man Vs Wild television program) would have anything on you guys. That place looks scary! (But adventurous)

    There are many lessons we can learn from your experience. To me, the one about Mike’s letting you take the rains stands out most. I like how he gave you some freedom and responsibility yet exercised sufficient control so as to avoid disaster.