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Nine Minutes on Monday
The Quick and Easy Way to Go From Manager to Leader
By JAMES ROBBINS
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2013James Robbins
All rights reserved.
Why Mountain Climbers Make Lousy Mountain Guides
The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.
The meeting lasted only a few minutes. When you are perched on the side of a mountain at 20,000 feet above sea level, it's not a good idea to sit around. We had been steadily making our way up the southwest side of Mt. Sajama, the highest peak in Bolivia and one of the highest in the western hemisphere. We still had over 1,500 vertical feet to go before reaching the summit, and it was almost noon. As tired as we were, it looked like this was as high as we would get. Osvaldo, our guide, radioed base camp, informing the people there that we had stopped in order to make a decision. The choices were simple—continue on toward the summit or abandon our attempt to reach the summit and retreat. The entire expedition to climb Mt. Sajama now rested in the hands of our leader.
We had been in Bolivia for nearly three weeks, climbing and acclimating to get ready for our attempt at Sajama. That morning at 2:30 a.m. we left high camp at 18,000 feet under the cover of darkness. There were five of us roped together, moving slowly under the lights of our headlamps, ever upward toward the glacier. Before sunrise, Jack, one of our team members, was having difficulty. After being assessed by our lead guide, John, the decision was made to take Jack back down to base camp. With our lead guide now departing for base camp with Jack in tow, there were just three of us left to go for the summit—Jim, a 33-year-old from North Carolina, Osvaldo, a Bolivian climbing guide who now took over for John, and me.
As we made our way up and onto the snow pack, the ground was littered with penitente, a type of snow formation common in South America that resembled pinnacles stretching up toward the sky. Our steel crampons chewed into the snow and ice as we made painstakingly slow progress toward a summit we could not see. Climbing at such altitudes can take a toll on your body, and just after sunrise Jim was beginning to feel the effects as he labored to continue. I could tell that Jim was getting tired as he stopped repeatedly and made comments about how hard this was.
The mountain was beginning to wear Jim down by slowly stripping away his will. The problem for Jim and me, however, was that we were down to our last guide and our last length of rope. If Jim quit now, we would all have to turn back; our quest for the summit would be over. Jim knew this and did his best to continue, but I began to doubt that he would last. What Jim needed now was motivation. What he could have really used was a motivational speaker climbing right behind him. Unfortunately, all he had was me, but, hey, I knew what to do. For the next hour I continued to spur Jim on with words of encouragement, looking for anything that would keep him going.
Then, sometime around mid-morning, something happened. It felt as if someone had sneaked up behind me and pulled my plug, draining away all my energy. My legs felt like heavy tree trunks, and an overwhelming feeling of fatigue washed over me. Because of a problem with our stove earlier in the day, we had limited water, and by not drinking enough, our bodies were beginning to feel the effects of dehydration. It was not long before I began to question my own ability to reach the summit. Soon my doubts began to erode my desire to reach the top as my aching body redirected my thoughts to the down-filled sleeping bag awaiting me in base camp. My desires were no longer to conquer the mountain, but to end this agony.
Now I had a problem. If I called it quits, it was over for all of us. I would be the cause of the failed expedition. It even crossed my mind that this story might not make a very good speech. As I searched for a way to escape my situation, a brilliantly creative and innovative solution came to me. As has been said, necessity is the mother of all invention.
"I don't need to quit!" I reasoned to myself, thinking with a brain a bit short on oxygen. "I just need Jim to quit." Because if Jim quit, I could too. It would be like an honorable discharge from the mountain. I could still go home and tell all my friends that I would have made the top if it was not for this other guy. I also believed I could outlast him because I was in very good shape at the time. So my encouraging words to keep Jim going began to be fewer and farther apart. After all, I surely didn't want to motivate him. However, I knew that Jim realized what was at stake and did not want to let me down. I knew what he was thinking and—I am ashamed to say this now, but I did something terrible—I opened the door a bit wider for Jim. I decided that, during one of our short rests, I would give Jim permission to quit. I would say to him, "Listen if you need to go down, that's OK with me."
I think Osvaldo sensed what was going on, which is why he decided to stop and call a meeting. Over the hours our pace had slowed, our attitudes had deteriorated, and I think both Jim and I wanted to give up, but neither of us wanted to be the first to suggest it. With crampons dug into the snow to keep from sliding down the mountain, Osvaldo got on the radio and, in his thick Bolivian accent, sent a transmission to base camp.
"Base camp, clients are tired. We are going to decide what to do next, whether to continue on or turn around and head back to base camp."
There we sat, the Atacama desert a few thousand feet below, with only the sound of a light wind teasing the mountain. Vince Lombardi, legendary football coach, once said, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." Indeed, there we were, convinced we had reached our limit and longing for the home fires of base camp. The mountain demanded more than we could give, and now the fate of our expedition lay in the hands of Osvaldo, our leader. If we were to continue upward, it would require something extraordinary from him.
How do you get others to do something they feel they cannot do? How do you motivate people to do more, and be more, when they believe they are at their limit? Is motivation something we can do to people, or does it need to come from within the person themselves? Before we dive into these questions, let's first consider another. What was Osvaldo paid to do?
HOW CLIMBERS BECOME GUIDES
Before he became a mountain guide, Osvaldo was a talented climber in his own right. Who would entrust their life on a mountain at high altitude to someone who was not competent to lead them? Certainly not I. When Osvaldo was merely a climber, things were much simpler. As a mountaineer, he simply climbed mountains. Getting to the top was the only goal, and, as his skills improved, so too did the number of summits he reached. Success was easily defined—getting to the top and returning home safely to tell about it, while having some fun along the way. For Osvaldo, the mountain itself was the challenge to overcome and the focal point of his energy and attention. Over time, his climbing skills impressed someone enough that this person suggested he consider becoming a mountain guide. Instead of simply climbing mountains, why not get paid to help other people climb mountains? This is the mountaineering world's equivalent of frontline management.
While this is a natural evolution for a good climber like Osvaldo, it requires a monumental shift in his thinking. For Osvaldo, becoming a guide meant that the mountain was no longer the focal point of his energy and attention. Reaching the summit was now a by-product of how well he managed his new job—moving people. Osvaldo's experience as a mountain climber would serve him well in his new role
Excerpted from Nine Minutes on Monday by JAMES ROBBINS. Copyright © 2013 by James Robbins. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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