By David Lim for CFO magazine
May 29th just a short while go marked the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mt Everest. Since that historic ascent by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, Everest has been skied down, had people jump off the summit with a parasail, and even had a brief visit by special, customized, high-performance helicopter. A woman ( Junko Tabei) climbed it in 1975, to be followed by many. In 1978, climbing aces Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler successfully pulled off the first ascent without the use of supplementary oxygen. But in the limited space here, I’ll explore some hidden leadership nuggets from a selection of expeditions; as well as why we have an enduring fascination with a peak that regularly gets more than 500 ascents annually.
Lessons from the 1953 expedition: If you have a diverse team, it’s imperative to create a cohesive atmosphere. John Hunt, the leader, made Tenzing Norgay a full and equal member of the British Commonwealth team. By right, this should have happened anyway, as various nations of the British Commonwealth were represented and most of the Sherpa porters then hired by the expeditions were of Indian origin. However, a colour bar existed – until Hunt broke it, and why not. Tenzing had had several failed Everest expeditions under his belt, and more experience on the peak than anyone else. Even so, he encountered difficulties at the initial stages from his own Sherpas, who viewed his status with suspicion.
More critically, taking care of everyone on the team increases the chance of maximal cooperation and effort, and Hunt learned this the hard way when the Sherpas were billeted in the stables in Kathmandu while the rest stayed at the British Resident’s quarters. A near-mutiny that ensued hammered home this lesson
Have you heard of Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans? But for a cruel twist of luck and untried new technology, it would have been their names and not Tenzing’s or Hillary’s in the history books. Long forgotten except in mountaineering circles, Bourdillon was an engineer who pioneered a closed-circuit oxygen system where very little of the compressed gas in a tank was wasted, versus the open circuit system which merely pumped oxygen through a loose fitting mask to supplement the available oxygen there. The pair climbed fast, but had to turn back at the South Summit of Everest; just 150 metres from the top when their system began to freeze from the moisture in had accumulated. Exhausted, the 2nd and final attempt would be by Tenzing and Hillary. They used the open circuit system successfully to the summit. The lesson here is that all leaders should develop contingency plans, as Hunt did, and many until today fail to realized that it was Tenzing and Hillary who were the ‘back-up’ team.
Emphasising the point about preparedness, Hunt obtained the state of the art equipment for that time including windproof Ventile smocks, the best food, and of course, the winning supplementary oxygen system.
Lesson s from the 1965 Indian Expedition: after two failed expeditions, the Indian team of 1965, led by Captain Mohan Kohli made sure it learned from any skill-based shortcomings of the previous two climbs, and pulled off a successful climb; securing many records at that time – most on top from a single team (nine), oldest and youngest climbers and several others.
In keeping with those times, the prevailing wisdom was that heavily equipped teams, often led by military officers were almost de rigueur for success on the 8000-metre peaks
Lessons from the 1975 British South-west Face expedition: Surely a landmark expedition in scaling what was thought to be the hardest ‘problem’ on Everest- the sheer, 3000-metre south-west face. The face had repelled two strong international expeditions. But on closer inspection, leadership of the earlier expeditions failed owing to a number of factors, one being the inclusion of too many “star” climbers which proved to be quite a tough group to handle. To make matters worse the German leader of the ‘international’ team only led from the rear and was often out of touch with the frontline realities of pushing the route upwards. The 1975 team learned from past mistakes and assembled a team of “star” climbers as well as workman climber, keen, team players eager to get a crack at Everest without any guarantee of a ticket for the summit. In addition, the constant winds that destroyed tents was addressed by a new designed tent called the Whillans Box – a rectangular constructed tent with sturdy aluminium tubes making them more like nylon wrapped boxes than tents.
On the team dynamics side, Bonington would skillfully manage personalities and egos, and ran several mini-teams of 2 persons with each pair taking turns at the exciting front end of the expedition while moving exhausted parties back to their base camp to recover. This, combined with a masterful management of the supply chain of tons of equipment eventually saw two stand atop of the summit after a breakthrough summit push from the southwest face.
The key people leadership lesson here for me was that nothing motivates a team more than a leader who knows how to give enough to individuals to satisfy their own selfish needs, while at the same time extracting sufficient effort and skill for the team goals so everyone make progress. The secret is allowing climbers on the team a high degree of autonomy; in short, trusting they will do what is right for the team.
Next month, I’ll cover more leadership lessons as expeditions on Everest began to polarize into commercially driven ventures and innovative mountaineering attempts.
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