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Upward Bound: Nine Original Accounts of How Business Leaders Reached Their Summits

Upward Bound: Nine Original Accounts of How Business Leaders Reached Their Summits

by Michael Useem

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Your team has faltered at a critical moment. A key member says he can’t continue, requiring you to make a snap decision: Do you write him off? Or do you risk the whole venture by trying to get him back on his feet?

It could be a scenario straight from the business world.

Yet this one occurred high on the slopes of the world’s deadliest


Your team has faltered at a critical moment. A key member says he can’t continue, requiring you to make a snap decision: Do you write him off? Or do you risk the whole venture by trying to get him back on his feet?

It could be a scenario straight from the business world.

Yet this one occurred high on the slopes of the world’s deadliest mountain, K2, where lives, not just livelihoods, depended on the leader’s choice.

Decisions don’t get much starker. That’s why mountains—though seemingly a world apart from business—hold unique and surprising insights for managers and entrepreneurs at any altitude. More than just symbols of our upward strivings, they are high-altitude management laboratories: testing grounds where risk, fear, opportunity, and ambition collide in the most unforgiving of settings.

Upward Bound brings together a remarkable team of nine writers equally at home among the high peaks and in the corridors of corporate power, including Good to Great author Jim Collins, legendary climber and outdoor clothing entrepreneur Royal Robbins, and Stacy Allison, the first American woman to summit Mount Everest. Their riveting, often harrowing accounts, reveal

• Why rock climbers’ distinction between failure (giving up before reaching the edge of your abilities) and what they call “fallure” (committing 100 percent and using up all your energy and reserves) can help companies transcend their vertical limits
• What happens when a leader abdicates responsibility in the Death Zone of Mount Everest—and how a similar vacuum at sea level can corrupt corporate purpose
• How large climbing expeditions use exquisite organization and “pyramids of people” to place just two climbers on top, making heroes of some from the sacrifice of all
• What “ridge-walking” between deadly avalanches and the lure of Mount McKinley’s summit taught a venture capitalist about nurturing risky high-tech start-ups
• How a simple insight—using “proximate goals”—propelled a faltering climber up El Capitan in a seemingly undoable solo ascent, a ten-day lesson that would later jump-start a business
• Why more accessible peaks like Mount Sinai can exert a pull every bit as powerful as Mount Everest
• How to think like a guide

While most people will never find themselves in the thin air of the world’s highest places, Upward Bound brings those places down to earth for anyone seeking the path to his or her own summit. Whether it’s up the career ladder or toward a creative peak, Upward Bound addresses the fundamental question of why we climb, while capturing the power of mountains to instruct as well as inspire.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Soundview Executive Book Summaries
More Suspenseful Stories Of Business Leadership
There are two fundamentally different ways of scaling Mount Everest, the world's highest peak: the siege-style expedition and the alpine expedition. The siege-style expedition involves huge amounts of materials slowly brought up the mountain in a series of camps. The materials and people dwindle with each successive camp, so that in the end only a few, lightly burdened climbers reach the top. The alpine expedition involves a small group of climbers who push up the mountain quickly in one effort.

The two styles of expeditions can mirror the two styles of business growth: the plodding but safer siege style that emphasizes logistics, organizational teamwork and a command-and-control leader versus the entrepreneurial alpine style that favors speed, flexibility and individual initiative. Both styles have advantages and disadvantages. When the unpredictable weather on the peak turns nice, alpine climbers can quickly take advantage of what is usually a small window of opportunity. On the other hand, siege expeditions are much better prepared to weather a long, unexpected storm.

Exploring Parallels
Comparisons between scaling Mount Everest and growing a business are made by University of California researcher Edwin Bernbaum in Upward Bound. Edited by Wharton Professor Michael Useem; his son Jerry Useem, a senior writer at Fortune; and venture capitalist Paul Asel, the book is a collection of essays by nine businesspeople and academics who share a passion for mountain or rock climbing - and who use their sometimes harrowing experiences to explore the parallels between success in the corporate world and success on the mountain. In addition to Bernbaum and the editors, contributors include entrepreneur Royal Robbins, founder of an outdoor and travel clothing distribution company; Stacy Allison, owner of a residential contracting company; and Jim Collins, author of Built to Last and Good to Great.

The first essay, titled "Hitting the Wall: Learning That Vertical Limits Aren't," is written by Collins and draws a number of specific lessons from his rock climbing experiences.

The first is to "climb to fallure, not failure." A rock climber in a bind can let go and drop onto the climbing rope in a controlled fall. Collins urges climbers to never let go on purpose - to never give in to failure. Likewise, he urges business leaders to never attempt anything halfway, in essence dropping on the rope at the first sign of trouble.

Another of Collins' lessons is to "separate probability from consequence." Because something is very dangerous does not mean it should not be attempted - if the probability of failure is very low. If probability and consequence are intertwined in your mind, then you will fail to make an informed decision on whether to take the risk.

'Form the Partner's Pact'
Collins also urges businesspeople to "form the partner's pact" - to worry first about who you want in your company before deciding what strategy to pursue. He also warns about the danger of success, comparing the tale of a highly skilled, experienced climber who dies on a relatively easy climb to the stories of investors and entrepreneurs who recklessly enjoyed the bull market of the late 1990s; the easy success setting them up for failure in the hard times ahead.

Why We Like This Book
Michael Useem, director of the Wharton School's Center for Leadership and Change, had already broken the mold of leadership literature with his two previous books, The Leadership Moment and Leading Up. Both books are unique collections of real-life stories drawn from a variety of fields that offer compelling and memorable lessons in leadership. Useem and his co-authors have produced another vivid work in which the power of the narratives reinforces the importance of the lessons within them. Copyright © 2004 Soundview Executive Book Summaries

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The Crown Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Hitting the Wall: Learning that Vertical Limits Aren’t


In 1999, Nick Sagar reached the end of his rope. He had a dream: to climb The Crew, a route at the upper end of the rock-climbing difficulty scale in Rifle State Park, Colorado. In his twenties, Sagar had given his life over to the monomaniacal dedication required to climb 5.14 routes (the highest rating possible on the Yosemite Decimal System), living off a few dollars of sponsorship money with his wife, Heather, munching donated energy bars and living out of a truck parked at the crags for months at a time.

Then Sagar saw the dream crumble before his eyes. During a rest day while preparing for his next attempt, he got the bad news: His sponsorship from a climbing gear company—money he desperately needed to survive while working on the route—failed to come through. Out of money, he had no choice but to abandon his quest for The Crew and head home, seeking work. Sagar knew that he would likely never again be fit enough to ascend the route; never again would he have an entire year to do nothing but live in Rifle Park and train all day every day, like an Olympic decathlete in the year before the games. The loss of sponsorship virtually guaranteed that he would never reach his goal. Sagar removed the gear he’d fixed on the route months earlier. Tears streaming down his face, he packed up his equipment and walked back to camp. He and Heather said good-bye to their friends and drove toward the exit, defeated.

But then a lone figure stepped into the middle of the road, holding something in his hand.

“That’s Herman,” said Nick. “What the heck is he doing?”

Herman Gollner, a dedicated climber in his mid-fifties, had watched Sagar’s quest with quiet admiration. When he heard about Sagar’s situation, he drove back to his home in Aspen, visited his bank, and made a withdrawal. Now, here stood Herman, with a handful of cash, flagging down Sagar’s truck.

“Here, take this,” he said, thrusting the cash at Nick. “You must finish The Crew.”

“No . . . I couldn’t possibly . . . no,” Nick stammered.

“You must take it,” asserted Herman, in his Austrian accent. “You are so close. You may never have a chance again. I am older now—never again to climb at the top—but you . . . maybe I can help you. Please, take it.”

The Sagars reluctantly accepted the cash, and Nick returned to the route for another attempt. This was his Olympic Gold Medal attempt, his shot to come through. He launched into the upper section of the wall, feeling strong, knowing he could do it. But just before the top, he heard a sickening sound—a little crackle under his foot and the skitter of his climbing shoe against stone. He had broken a key foothold!

Like one of those movie scenes in which the hero grasps for something in a dream, only to watch it disappear from his outstretched fingertips as he wakes, Sagar watched the top of the route suddenly fly up out of his grasp as gravity pulled his body off the rock and into midair. The rope snapped tight, and he knew he’d just expended his best effort ever. And now, without the key foothold, the route would be even more difficult.

“I almost wanted to quit,” he said. “But Herman and all my friends believed in me. I couldn’t let them down.” Foothold or not, Sagar was determined to do the route, working on it through the autumn months and into early winter. Finally, on the last possible day of the season, with snow falling all about, Sagar made a final attempt. The overhanging rock shielded his hand holds from snow, but that was the only relief from the weather. Despite subfreezing temperatures and fingers so numb that he could barely feel the smaller edges, Sagar pulled through to the top and fulfilled the dream.

“I learned so much from The Crew,” reflected Sagar three years later, “but very little of the learning was about climbing. I learned that the highest individual achievements are never solo events, that you only reach your best with the help of other people, and their belief in you. It’s a lesson I will never forget, no matter what I do with the rest of my life.”

The adventure of The Crew became not just a climb, but a classroom for life. It was not reaching the top that mattered most, but the lessons—the struggle and the adventure—learned along the way. Says Sagar: “I’m a better person for the experience, not the success.”

I’ve been a rock climber for more than thirty years now, and while I’ll probably never break through to climb 5.14 like Nick Sagar, my whole approach to life and career has been inextricably linked with my development as a climber. I began in my early teenage years, when my stepfather signed me up for a climbing course against my will. (“I’d rather study,” I whined.) At the end of the first day, however, I knew I’d discovered one of the burning passions of my life. Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, I had one of the great climbing centers of the world as my backyard, and some of the greatest climbers in the world as mentors. When I applied to Stanford University as an undergraduate, I noted in my application that one of the main attractions of Stanford was its sandstone buildings and wonderful weather that would enable me to train year-round by climbing on the walls between classes. (Climbing on the walls had long been a tradition with the Stanford Alpine Club, which had even published a small guide to routes on campus.) One day while trying an unclimbed route on the side of the philosophy building in the main Quadrangle, I heard a shuffle of feet behind me and then the voice of emeritus philosophy professor John Goheen: “Really, Mr. Collins. Do you think this is the ultimate solution to the existential dilemma?” I named the climb Kant Be Done.

Rock climbing for me has been the ultimate classroom, with lessons applicable to all aspects of life, including business, management, leadership, and scientific study. It is a sport from which you do not always get a second chance to learn from your mistakes—death tends to stop the learning process—but I’ve been fortunate to survive my own blunders. In this chapter, I offer five of my favorite lessons from climbing as a classroom, and how they apply to life and work outside of climbing:

1.Climb to fallure, not failure: How to succeed without reaching the top

2.Climb in the future, today: How to succeed by changing your frame of mind

3.Separate probability from consequence: How to succeed—and stay alive—by understanding the true risks

4.Form the Partner’s Pact: How to succeed by practicing the discipline of first who, then what

5.Don’t confuse luck and competence: How to not let success kill you


Matt and I walked around the bend in the trail and I stopped dead in my tracks, looking at an absolutely beautiful sheet of rock—smooth and slightly overhanging, with a thin fingertip-sized seam splitting right up the middle of the gray-and-silver granite wall in the Colorado Rockies Front Range. “You can see why I named the route Crystal Ball,” Matt said, pointing to a baseball-sized quartzite handhold fifty feet up the climb.

We roped up and I set off up the route, shooting for an on-sight ascent. An on-sight means that on your first try you lead the climb without any prior information about the moves (other than what you can determine looking from the ground) and without any artificial aid. Other climbers may have climbed the route before you, but they have not given you any information on how to climb the difficult sections, nor have you watched anyone else attempt the route. For you, in other words, the route is an entirely blank page, no matter how many other climbers have ascended the route. You get one chance for an on-sight. Once you start to climb, if you blow it (and thereby fall onto the rope), you’ve forever lost the chance.

Ten feet below the crystal, my feet began to skitter about, slipping off slick pebbles, and I curled my thumb around a little edge, thinking to myself, “If I can just get a little weight off my fingers . . .” The adrenaline of the on-sight attempt made me overgrip every hold, clamping down as hard as I could—like an overanxious runner who goes out too fast in the first 800 meters, only to pay the price for the indiscretion with lactic acid and gasping breaths.

If you’ve ever taken a pull-up test, you can get a sense for the feel of a hard sport climb. With the first pull-up, you feel really strong—like you can do this forever. But when you get close to your limit, the movement that earlier felt so easy becomes impossibly hard. If you could just let go of the bar and rest for a minute, you could do two or three more pulls-ups, easy. But when you try to do all of your pull-ups in one hang, you hit a wall; drawing on all your will, you just can’t get over the bar again. End of session.

A hard sport climb is similar to a pull-up session: It’s a race to the top before you run out of power. The moves that would be so easy if they were moves one, two, and three become much harder when placed higher on the route, at, say, moves twenty-five, twenty-six, and twenty-seven. (A move is simply a hand movement. If you move your right hand from one hold to the next, it counts as a single move.) As we say in the realm of steep routes, “the clock is ticking” as soon as you leave the ground. You only have so many minutes and seconds before you will reach a point where your arms and fingers unwrap and uncurl, and you go plummeting down until (hopefully) the rope catches you.

“Breath, Jim. Relax.” Matt’s voice soothed me for a moment.

I gathered a bit of composure while hooking my thumb and rest- ing my fingers, trying to get my breathing to settle down. But to little avail. My mind chattered away: “Should I go right hand or left hand to the sideways edge above? . . . If I get it wrong, there’s no way I can reverse . . . and even if I get it right, I’m not sure I’ll have enough power to pull up to the crystal ball. . . . And if I can’t get to the crystal ball, there’s no way I’ll be able to get the rope clipped into the next point of protection. . . . How far would I fall? . . . Matt’s a good belayer. . . . I hope I checked my knot . . . God, my fingers hurt . . . but this is the on-sight . . . don’t blow it. . . . You only get one chance to on-sight the route. . . . But what if I go for it and I can’t clip? I’ll take a huge fall . . . But I won’t hit anything . . . I’ll just fly off into space . . . It’s only scary, but not unsafe. . . . Just do it. . . . Just punch for it. . . . What have you got to lose? . . . I wonder if I can go right left right . . . But I don’t like to take big falls . . .”

Tick, tick, tick—the clock ran on while I hesitated.

“Okay, Matt, here I go.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

MICHAEL USEEM is professor of management and director of the Center for Leadership and Change at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of several books, including Leading Up and The Leadership Moment, and he runs programs for managers in the Andes, Patagonia, and the Himalayas.

JERRY USEEM is a senior writer at Fortune magazine, where he has covered management in such diverse contexts as Wal-Mart stores, the New York Yankees, and big corporate disasters.

PAUL ASEL was an adviser to start-up companies who helped pioneer venture capital in post-Communist Russia before bringing his experience to Silicon Valley. All three have wandered the world’s high—but mainly not so high—mountain ranges.

From the Hardcover edition.

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