On stories and leadership

Last night I watched a documentary on Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand mountaineer who (with Tenzing Norgay) became the first men to climb to the summit of Mt Everest in Nepal. Hillary died last fortnight, so the documentary wasn’t just coincidental!

The documentary was particularly revealing to me about the actual mission and ascent up the Himalayas by a group of men led by John Hunt. I confess to not having known about Hunt and the whole team of men, including over a dozen Sherpas, who made up the party that sought to conquer the summit of Earth’s highest terrestrial mountain. The mission began awkwardly when the expected leader of the expedition, Eric Shipton, was overlooked and Hunt was appointed in charge. Hunt had to win the support of his men and he did so with his good nature, experience, and determination.

Leadership is not just about being given permission to lead, it’s about gaining the respect and willingness of the team to allow and support you to lead.

Two other interesting pieces of information:

John Hunt was not in the first pair to make the final assault on Everest and, being affected by altitude, he (responsibly but sadly) was forced back to camp so that he did not witness the final ascent himself. Leadership is not about the individual, it’s about the team and what’s best for the mission at hand.

Moreover, the first pair to attempt the final assault on the peak (Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans) did not make it and returned to camp. It was left to Hillary and Tenzing, the second pair, who made it to the summit successfully on 29th May 1953. Yet the documentary highlighted, and Hillary acknowledged, that success had only been possible by the work of the entire team. Hillary and Tenzing were the heroes, but they wouldn’t have succeeded without the co-operation, support and spirit from the whole expedition party. The success of the 1953 Everest mission was made possible by good planning, collaboration, and a committed and effective team of individuals.

It’s a great story and a great documentary, especially listening to the heartfelt reminiscing of key players such as Hillary, Hunt and George Lowe. Stories like this really give meaning to the nature of leadership and teams.

And this got me thinking about my own experiences, the Leadership course I did at Rabobank, and the module on leadership in the Masters degree I am midway through completing. In all those contexts I couldn’t help but think of some of the fundamental features of leadership important to me:

1) respect the people in your team and trust them to do their job

2) focus on the mission and how best the team can achieve the goal (align and mobilise the team accordingly)

3) encourage and support the individuals in the team in a way that best reflects their personal needs

4) be prepared to lead by giving leadership opportunities to others if circumstances arise (responsibility and autonomy)

5) be prepared to involve the team and listen to what is said, but the outcomes may vary (decision-making by consensus or by the leader)

6) remember, the mission is not about the leader, it’s about the team and achieving the desired goal (personal KPI’s aren’t everything if they forget the impact of others)

7) lastly, a leader is not an inspiration unless those that follow think so.

In business and government today, we need to encourage leadership in our ranks. Stories are a great way of bringing meaning to leadership (they are emotive and real). Encourage those stories in your own organisation and see how far you can climb, whether one’s Everest is a mountain top or a day at the office.

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2 responses to “On stories and leadership

  1. Hi Brad, saw some things about him on TV too. What struck me that he was very much liked by the Sherpa’s and that the Sherpa was part of the victory and not just a helper. Funny how we all take out something that appeals to us!

  2. Joitske,

    Yes, I agree. I especially liked the story of when Hillary and Tenzing stood at the top of Mt Everest and Hillary held out his hand to shake hands and Tenzing just gave Hillary a giant hug! Sums up the feelings I think.

    Regards,
    Brad

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