Everest’s North Face at sunsetEverest 60 Years Later –
Everest 60 Years Later – Leadership Lessons through the Decades (Part 2)
By David Lim
In the previous issue of this magazine I explored the key leadership lessons gleaned from 60 years of Everest expeditions. As a leader of two Mt Everest expeditions myself, and a leadership coach, I find it useful to seek some of the best self and team leadership lessons from such extreme environments. In the first part of this exploration, I covered the more traditional national and ‘large-scale’ expeditions from the ‘Golden age” of Himalayan exploration. This was a time when most of the 8000-metre peaks (there are 14) were still virgin; and even for those that had been climbed; only one route had been established.
As high altitude mountaineering on Everest progressed into the late 1970s and 1990s, more complex team dynamics began to be seen. Almost matrix-like teams began to arrive on Everest, where there was less of a hierarchical structure. Teams could comprise of several ‘sub-teams’ climbing with their own agenda, and yet still supporting, in some ways, the greater effort. There might also be less of a singular leader.
Perhaps one of the most significant climbs on the 1970s was the small Austrian/Italian “sub-team” of climbing aces Peter Habeler and Reinhold Messner; who in 1978; made the first successful ascent of Everest without the help of supplementary oxygen. Despite various stories of how they would sustain permanent brain damage; and that Everest could not be climbed with such aids; the two demonstrated that 1) self-limiting beliefs do not help in achieving stretch goals, and 2) preparation to the smallest detail underpins all great successes. While many thought this achievement relied on a lot of good luck and was a bit of fluke, in reality, Messner and Habeler arrived on Everest with a stellar track record This included climbing the dreaded North Face of the Eiger in record time, as well as climbing Gasherbrum I, a “smaller’ 8000-metre peak in Pakistan; without the aid of bottled oxygen. Very much like the myth of the famous “four-minute” mile barrier that runner Roger Bannister smashed in the 1950s, in reality, the time for breaking this “barrier” was ripe, and it was only a matter of time before it was broken. Both Bannister and Messner/Habeler just were the right people at the right time to make history.
1983 The Kangshung Face: This landmark expedition was unique in that it attempted the then unclimbed Kangshung Face of Everest from the Kangshung side of the mountain; a huge, 3000-metre snow and ice covered face, fraught with avalanche risk. As a metaphor, many think business revenues are best obtained from developing new business when in fact existing clients can be explored of yet untapped needs and wants. In that sense, mountaineering involves the exploration of previously climbed peaks (like Everest); to see what new routes can be attempted. Most peaks are climbed for the first time by the easiest route, followed by (often) successively harder new routes. Like the low hanging fruit that most businesses enjoy when they begin, what can you do to raise the game; and go beyond this level? In 1983, the small Anglo-American team of just four climbers, no Sherpa support, inched up the massive face until the final barrier was overcome. Then, Stephen Venables and Ed Webster made a dash for the top. Webster suffered frostbite and Venables had to continue alone to the very top. Descending in the darkness, he spent a night out, without a tent or sleeping bag – and survived. He then spent a harrowing few days making his way back to safety.
The 1983 climbed further enforced the view that, small, competent teams had the nimbleness and agility that big teams did not have in tackling such routes. No doubt, the route could have been ‘forced’ by using resource intensive, “siege” style versus lightweight” alpine” style approaches, but in my experience, such expeditions suffer from supply chain bottlenecks, and a cumbersome leadership structure. In many ways, the 1983 team was a team without leaders; each member coming with superb mountaineering skills, a desire to cooperate fully with each other, and knowing always when to lead and when to follow. Perhaps the most critical factor was the ability of each team member to lead themselves effectively.
Reinforcing this approach was the Australian team in 1984, immortalized by their new route on the north face of Everest, called “ White Limbo”. This climb established, for the first time in decades, a totally new route on the north side of Everest in Tibet. More significantly, was how the “team of leaders”; persisted, despite losing a lot of mission-critical equipment in an avalanche early in the climb, their eschewing the typical Sherpa porter support, and their lightweight tactics on a huge objective. That just four climbers could pull off this feat set new standards for climbing on Everest.
The saddest, but important leadership lessons in the last two decades however are not from such groundbreaking feats. Rather, they are from the democratization of climbing on Everest through the facilitation of ascents by “amateurs” joining commercial expeditions. Here, experienced guides, charge top dollar for amateurs of all colour and experience t have a crack at the world’s highest peak. The dynamics are completely different in that it is the skill of the guides and the “system” in setting up a mountain full of camps and oxygen for the clients to offer them the best chance to succeed. What is often lacking is a poor level of self and team leadership expressed by the participants in such ventures. This is where the strong social contracts that exist between climbers who have had a long apprenticeship on other peaks; and time spent climbing such peaks together is rare.
Here leadership in running a “business”, supply chains and client management come to fore. In the now infamous 1996 and 2009 calamities on the mountain, a key lesson is how things can go very pear-shaped quickly if a series of small and seemingly insignificant mistakes are made. As the guide/leader of a commercial team, it seems an eye for detail and a strong sense of anticipation that your clients lack, are key leadership skills needed to succeed in making safe ascents.
Like any business environment, the challenges on Everest keep shifting, as what was once the benchmark is now run-of-the-mill, and where leadership, if anything else, divides the successful and the less successful.
David Lim is a leadership and negotiation coach, and a leader of two Mt Everest expeditions. Reach him at – for a subscription to his leadership e-zine, or for a free consultation on your leadership challenges