Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, April 3, 2017
“Don’t step to the left, don’t step to the right, or you’re going to die.” Those are definitely words to live by if you happen to be mountain climbing, and your guide says that to you.
Christopher Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Wharton Center for Leadership, has written a book, “Lead like a Guide,” which is a synthesis of his interviews with all kinds of “guides” — mountain, fishing, hiking, etc. The premise is that leadership in a technology company mirrors in many ways what happens out in the wilderness.
A primary guide strength was that they were “socially intelligent” — which is a fancy way of saying that you must build a relationship with your team (trust) and then behave in a way that manages the relationship. There is room for friendly discussion on the trail (as we build the company), but in the final analysis, only one person can be the CEO. Firm and flexible (my yoga practice seems to be relevant here) are the characteristics of the successful leader. You can’t apply high pressure or fear or yelling all the time or your employees will revolt. You can only scream on a rare occasion, such as when your client is about to step on a rattlesnake. Balance is the key.
I have written before about emotional intelligence. Social intelligence is a step beyond. It moves from your own awareness to a larger awareness of the people and the events around you. If you have ever taken 15 9-year-olds on a field trip, I rest my case. In climbing, it is not just your clients, but all the stuff around you — the weather, the food, the route, tired participants, the location of the next base camp.
The great CEOs are in many ways both guides and patriarchs. Your employees want to depend on you for the big stuff, so they can do the smaller stuff — write the code or market the product. Now add the complexity of cultures. Not everyone you are taking to the top of the mountain speaks perfect English, so communication (code for listening) is critical. Can we push to the summit or is the team exhausted and a big mistake likely to be made?
I have been fishing with one fellow for many years. And while I spend a lot of my time “being in charge and being depended on,” when I get in the hands of a great guide, I willingly (eagerly) give it up. I want to depend on him, as in “don’t step over there, you will drown.”
Maxwell says the guide/CEO removes the roadblocks, but he can’t cast the fly for you, nor can he climb the hill. The big difference here is empowering versus directing — following a set of directions or developing a skill that allows you to pick the best path.
This stuff is nuanced. “Trust is that link between just faith (in the guide) and real confidence (in yourself).” There is a whole industry around team/trust building (the ropes, the wall), but personally I am a bit suspect if the end result is simply “Kumbaya.” The key component is still the CEO/guide.
Another skill is critical — being “risk aware” versus risk averse. You cannot be averse if you are involved in a startup. It comes with the territory because creating something from nothing is filled with risk. But being risk aware is a higher skill — understanding what can derail the company, when should we take the funding, or is getting in bed with that strategic partner a good idea.
Imagine the hard call from a mountain guide, “Dan, this is just not your day,” even though your client paid $60,000 to try to summit. That’s being risk aware.
Finally, the guide has to be the philosopher king — teaching the client to enjoy the journey. No summit or no fish today, but the scenery was spectacular.
Don’t get me wrong. The great leaders are not dispassionate. They want to summit (IPO or sell for multiple millions), they want to catch fish, and they desperately want for you to succeed. They manage their anxiety; you never see them sweat (until they get back to the lodge and then they tell you that you were in bigger trouble than you knew). Ultimately the guide “has your back.”
Rule No. 511: Watch that last step, it’s a doozy.