Four Lessons from Kilimanjaro

Four Lessons from Kilimanjaro

By David Lim

With a few final gasps of the rarefied air, you haul yourself up a final set of rocks to have your head torch light up a  faded wooden sign that simply says “Gilman’s Point, 5681m”. Just below that, another set of neatly painted words state: “Tanzania – Welcome and Congratulations”.  Anyone climbing one of the more common routes to highest mountain in Africa will remember this signpost. But the hard work isn’t over yet. Over a  swig of hot ginger tea from a thermos, and a quick, chewy bite off an energy bar, you know that the worst of the climb is over – six hours of clambering and plodding up scree, and endless zig-zags on the path to the crater rim.

As the sun bursts over the darkened edge of the horizon, you look west and see the whole crater rim lit up. Close at hand, and across the silent volcano’s rim are the blockish ice fields, and about 200 vertical metres and about another hour and a half’s hike away is Uhuru, the summit of Africa, at 5895m. You look around at your team, and the dozen other climbers who lurch forward and hike up in the perfect weather to the top.

So what, if any, can be learnt from subjecting your middle-aged body to a week-long expedition to climb Africa’s highest mountain? I’ve spent half a lifetime gleaning leadership and resilience lessons from mountains far harder and way higher than Kilimanjaro. In 2004, I led a climb comprising all-disabled mountaineers up one of Kilimanjaro’s hardest flanks, the Western Breach route, and that was harder. But even on the simplest climbs, you get to learn something about yourself and others; so here are some of these lessons.

1) Pick a goal, and crystallize it over a set time-frame:

Without any significant mountaineering goals, life outside of work and family became dreary and less motivating than it should have been. With the goal to climb Kilimanjaro with my wife and two old friends, a date set for the trip meant a workout and preparation schedule had to be created, and embraced. Few goals are always crystal clear at the outset. But by working at actions that support it’s accomplishment, the goal gets clearer by the day.

2) Decide on a set of values to govern the project or plan:

Any leader knows that the values that govern a project will set the tone, as well as the kind of culture that will be created. For Kilimanjaro, my own personal summit plans would be subservient to preserving long friendships, as well as helping get my team to the top. Of course, it helps if you’ve already summitted on a prior climb. Developing a highly competitive set of values will engender a spirit of one-upmanship and competitiveness, sometimes to the detriment of a team

3) Encourage behaviours that support the goal

This includes freely discussing concerns, anxieties and even hypothetical situations. On Kilimanjaro, I raised the issue of someone needing to turn back on summit day. It was unanimously decided that that person would be supported sufficiently well by on or more of our excellent Tanzanian trek guides, and the rest would carry on. In reality, many teams are fearful in raising their concerns, and managers fail to create a ‘safe’ environment in which to discuss these matters. Other behaviours could include due consideration to each other during the stressful run-up to summit day, and included matters like excessive snoring, hygiene and health issues. Men and women are simply not created to spend long periods on close proximity to each other under stressful conditions without something giving way.

How well you manage your tempers, develop a sense of humour around mundane discomforts and so on, go a long way to supporting goal-getting behaviours

4) Bite the Bullet:

Ultimately, a climb or a project is often decided by a key decision, attitude or moment in time. Very often, that decision has to be accompanied by a decision to press on despite hardships or difficulty. Think of a time when you thought of giving up. Oddly, success is often met not long after you persevered. On a similar note, our climb was not marked by any dramatic events. But at Gilman’s Point, a key landmark of the summit climb, everyone felt good, and motivated to press on to the summit, which looked very far away. Smiles, jokes and encouragement are what are needed in the workplace, as often as it was needed on the mountain that morning.

Ironically, so many people climbing Kilimanjaro give up at Gilman’s Point that Kilimanjaro National Park authority (or KINAPA) actually issues a green coloured certificate celebrating your attaining this point on the mountain; as a consolation to many who may have traveled far, climbed hard, but given up at the last part.

Considering two of the members of the team Juliana and Maureen had never climbed anything like Kilimanjaro, it was to their credit to keep plodding on, no matter what. Maureen put it this way “ No green one for me, only the gold one!” referring to how she wanted the gold certificate issued to people who attain the true summit of the peak.

Nothing of value was ever gained easily, and perhaps this is what draws many people to climb mountains; an opportunity to see what they are made of.

At 737a.m on August 21st, I reached the summit – for the second time in seven years. But more importantly, everyone else on the team made it. Summit photographs are a lie – they never reveal the long physical and mental commitments to get there. And even then the job isn’t over until you are safely down the mountain. Getting to the top is just the halfway point.

In that light, I wish you the best of efforts (not luck) in reaching your own Uhuru Peak, and not give up at your Gilman’s Point.


David Lim is a leadership and negotiation coach, best-selling author, and two-time Mt Everest expedition leader. David has helped organizations like IBM, Jones Lang Lasalle, TATA Steel, Maruti and DTZ improve through his leadership consultancy, Everest Motivation Team. Contact: