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High Altitude Leadership: What the World's Most Forbidding Peaks Teach Us About Success

Author: Chris Warner and Don Schmincke

Publisher: Jossey Bass

ISBN: Mick Yates

Summary:Leadership is often a risky, lonely role possessing nearly unbearable lows and fleeting highs. Despite this emotionally and intellectually draining roller coaster, a handful of leaders deliver stunning results, with great consistency.

Leader Values

When one picks this book, up, it is impossible not to take seriously the interesting and eclectic background of the authors. Chris Warner is a climber, educator, entrepreneur, and filmmaker. He has led more than 150 international mountaineering expeditions (from K2 to Kilimanjaro), and has been teaching leadership and group development for more than twenty-five years. Don Schmincke is a self-confessed mad-scientist turned management sage. In 1990 he founded The SAGA Leadership Institute, which is known for its rather irreverent approaches. With authors like this there is bound to be an unusual book on the table.

The book does not disappoint, and the chapter titles say it all ....

  • Danger #1: Fear of Death
  • Danger #2: Selfishness
  • Danger #3: Tool Seduction
  • Danger #4: Arrogance
  • Danger #5: Lone Heroism
  • Danger #6: Cowardice
  • Danger #7: Comfort
  • Danger #8: Gravity
  • Danger #9: The Journey Begins

In each case the authors take the lessons from mountaineers life and death experiences and relate them to leadership in all walks of life. They tell stories of their own history (sometimes harrowing, sometimes fun) and create an original set of ideas to help leaders do better.

For example, on the subject of fear, the authors note "Leadership destroys climbers on windswept slopes at 26,000 feet, and executives in comfortable conference rooms". Fear stops people taking needed action, whether on the mountain side or in the office. How to overcome such fear is where the book really scores, with useful tips and insights that are practical yet thought provoking - and always cast in challenging (and sometimes funny) language.

The authors have developed  a "High Altitude Leadership Team Assessment", in which the dangers are ranked, the survival tips are developed and an action plan is designed for the team to follow. To quote this assessment, on the subject of Fear:

"Anxiety about fatal danger which causes someone to stop taking action. When an experienced Sherpa slipped off the edge into the darkness on K2, climbers froze. The fear of death gripped them and they stopped. The same happens in corporate teams. The death of a project, product line, sales revenue target, career, executive sponsor, or team goal can cause members to freeze. Evidence can include team members avoiding great decisions, no longer taking risks with each other, not challenging dead weight, general malaise, resisting change or resisting needed changes to their own leadership style."

And their survival tips and action advice? Again, to quote the assessment tool:

"Embrace death: a metaphor to accept and not resist, avoid, or ignore the inevitable reality of the situation. Suggestions the team could consider to survive this Danger include:

  1. Explore what team members could really be avoiding? What’s the deeper fear stopping them from taking decisive and hard actions, or making them slide into failure grasping at false hopes?
  2. Probe if team members are afraid of admitting failure, of looking stupid or inadequate, of appearing vulnerable. What if they embraced what they feared the most? Would it free them to act?
  3. Take action. Sometimes overcoming fear means taking action, no matter how small. What could a member ommit to doing in the next 30 days for the key issue they’re struggling with?"

As the publisher's blurb comments "Leadership is often a risky, lonely role possessing nearly unbearable lows and fleeting highs. Despite this emotionally and intellectually draining roller coaster, a handful of leaders deliver stunning results, with great consistency. They push past current leadership trends in order to achieve the most extremely challenging goals. They don''t fall prey to the platitudes or cliches we see so often see in leadership theory. Instead, they succeed by recognizing and surviving the dangers that challenge them as they take themselves and their teams to higher levels. These rare individuals are those that Chris Warner and Don Schmincke call High Altitude Leaders."

Definitely worth a place on your reading list.