Samantha Sophia via Unsplash

Leading Without Ropes

Lessons on leadership from the world’s greatest mountain climber

If you spend a little time studying the amazing career of Alex Honnold, it won’t take long to reach a conclusion that goes something like this: That guy is just wired differently than the rest of us!

That was my conclusion, anyway, and there’s actually some scientific evidence to support that view. But I also believe leaders can learn a great deal from just about anyone who has achieved great success, even those who are wired differently. There’s plenty about Honnold that I’d never want to emulate – let’s just say he can be a bit quirky – but I also find a great deal to learn from this enigmatic mountain climber.

There are articles and books that tell Honnold’s story, but the best for my money is the award-winning 2018 documentary Free Solo. It follows Honnold’s quest to become the first person to free solo climb the roughly 3,000 feet of vertical granite known as El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Free soloing is the term for mountain climbers who use no ropes, ladders, or other safety equipment. They wear a special type of shoes and carry a bag of rosin or chalk for their hands and fingers, and then they scale the side of a mountain with nothing much else other than skill and determination.

For people like me who are afraid of heights, just watching someone like Honnold climb is a bit unnerving. But leadership often feels unnerving, too, doesn’t it? There are times when the goals seem impossible and the risks are overwhelming. A wrong move or a slip up won’t cost you your life, but it can prove costly for your organization and everyone who works for you. In that regard, there’s a lot we can learn from Honnold’s story. Here are four things I took way:

Do things you love.

Leadership is hard work. But having a passion for the work you’re doing motivates you to push through the challenges and strive for things that are big and worthwhile but also downright difficult.

In the movie, Honnold says, “I think it’s the best thing in life is to be able to take the one thing you love the most and have it, like, work out that you can make a living that way.”

Passion isn’t something you find like a prize in a box of cereal. It’s something you discover and develop over time, and it’s something that can shift or even change with the experiences of life. If you have a passion for leadership, develop it, but do so in the context of other things you love, whether that’s retail, tax law, sports, manufacturing, or selling coffee. It won’t eliminate the hard work or the challenges, but it will make them more worthwhile.

Prepare for your fears.

A cognitive neuroscientist tested Honnold’s brain in 2016 and, to the surprise of some, found that he has a functioning amygdala—the part that registers and responds to fear. But the tests also showed that he doesn’t respond to fear the way ordinary people do. He’s wired differently. Or, as journalist J.B. MacKinnon put it, “his amygdala sleeps in his brain like an old dog in an Irish pub.”

Honnold still experiences fear, even if he’s hyper-calm in the face of it. More importantly, he respects that fear enough to address it proactively. My amygdala runs around hyperventilating and barking like crazy at the mere thought of climbing a mountain, even with ropes. But I can face my leadership fears in much the same way as Honnold faces his fears on a mountain – by preparing methodically and taking nothing for granted.

“I try to expand my comfort zone by practicing the moves over and over again,” Honnold said. “I work through the fear, until it’s just not scary anymore.”

The better we are at doing something, the more comfortable we are when doing it, and the less we live in the grip of fear. I believe fear still exists for most of us when we’re stepping into uncharted territory as a leader, but preparation can fuel our confidence when it comes time to take action. And, by the way, that preparation includes working with, learning from, and trusting in our teammates. Honnold climbs solo, but he doesn’t always prepare solo. His preparation includes safety ropes, climbing with other experienced climbers, and seeking advice from people he trusts.

Take risks for the right reasons.

One of the concerns Honnold expressed during the film was that he might be climbing El Capitan for the wrong reason. He didn’t want to do it because he felt pressure so that he and his mountain-climbing, filmmaking buddies would have a movie to show for it. He wanted to do it to satisfy his love for climbing and his personal desire to do what had never been done.

At one point, he heads to the mountain to take it on alone, but stops soon after he begins. He recognizes that he’s not ready, and his quest takes a two-year hiatus. But that false start helped him know that he wasn’t letting the movie drive his better judgment. As leaders, we have all sorts of temptations pulling us toward embracing risks for the wrong reasons – pride, fear of failure, pressure to please other people. We can’t let those temptations drive our better judgment.

Celebrate success.

There are times during the movie when you wonder if Honnold has a pulse. He’s clearly alive, but he’s as calm and unemotional as the rocks around him. Yet he seldom seems unhappy, and he’s often smiling. When he reaches the top of El Capitan, Honnold doesn’t jump up and down to celebrate an achievement that was eight years in the making. He’s amazingly calm. He changes shoes, puts on a cap, and, with a huge grin on his face, says, “I’m so delighted.” It’s a strangely emotional moment where you can see and even feel the exhilaration, even if it’s mostly bottled up inside him.

You and your team might show a bit more emotion when you accomplish some huge goal. But whatever mountains you climb and whatever form your celebration takes, make sure you mark the moment and enjoy it.

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  1. Candid

    Your comment about El Capitan and the “right reason” is exactly right. There is immense pressure for leaders to exude a certain image for their employees (growth CEO, thought leader, innovator….) and sometimes it drives them to make rash decisions. Investments to be seen making decisions rather than really setting up for the future, growth because it is cheap/easy instead of because it is the right move for the company…

    Sometimes, something is the right thing to do but if the reasons are wrong we will inevitably fail because, in our hearts, the reasons we act provide the drive and motivation to either be able to see the problems and approach them with the right mindset, or freeze us in indecision when we have an unexpected difficult in the climb.

    I feel that recognition in ourselves that we may have the wrong mindset may be as important to successful leadership as recognizing the right strategic course to take.

    Reply to Candid

    1. Walt Rakowich

      Yes! It comes down to chasing risks for their sake, or as Hollond says, being “risk-aware.” Know what they are, and make informed decisions.

      Reply to Walt Rakowich

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