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Leading in the Face of Fear

4:45 a.m.: Vapor from my breath immediately freezes on my beard. At 25 below zero and 26,500 feet above sea level, I’m lucky to be breathing at all. At this altitude, there’s barely one-third the oxygen at sea level. With so little oxygen reaching our brains and finger tips, we struggle to stay warm, think straight and climb higher. This is not just any mountain. It’s K2: the world’s second-highest and most feared peak. For our team, this day will be the ultimate test.

The Korean team struggles through the deep snow, barely 100 feet above us. They’ve reached a notoriously treacherous spot known as “the Bottleneck.” More than a dozen climbers have died there over the years, and the Koreans are rigging the first set of ropes, ensuring all our safety. As I adjust my gear I look up. Suddenly, the Korean team’s professional leader, Nima, a highly experienced climber who had summited Mount Everest six times, slips and falls. He rockets to the bottom of the Bottleneck, but slows as he toboggans across the only flat patch on the nearly vertical South Face. I hold my breath, expecting him to plant his ice ax and stop himself on this relatively modest slope.

But he doesn’t.

To our horror, Nima slides off the edge. He tumbles into the darkness. At our altitude he will fall for several minutes before hitting the glacier ten thousand feet below us.

Nima is dead.

His body will never be recovered.

From the book High Altitude Leadership.


Chris Warner, one of the most recognized names in mountain climbing and my coauthor of High Altitude Leadership, alerted me to his dispatch above via satellite phone on that fateful day. It was one more step into a unique laboratory that Chris opened up for us to explore extreme dimensions of leadership—the death zone, that altitude above 26,000 feet where lack of oxygen threatens long-term survival.

The moment after Nima slid off the cliff, two dozen climbers from 10 countries climbers froze in fear, stunned. It was a natural response. Whether you’re on an emergency response team, or a financial manager watching an economy crash, the same thing happens. You freeze. What do leaders do to unfreeze themselves and others on their team?

Embrace Death
What we learned from high altitude research was that climbers and professionals everywhere can overcome their frozen position by embracing death. I remember Chris telling me on the satellite phone that he unfroze the moment he told himself that if he didn’t think this was going to happen, he was on the wrong mountain. Once he accepted Nima’s death, he was able to take action. In organizations and individuals, accepting the inevitable unleashes innovation, creates new opportunities, and allows one to regain some stability in the face of panic. Ancient and contemporary leaders call it “dying before battle.” Most companies facing bankruptcy experience the same effect; a freedom to take risks and pursue innovative strategies.

Take Action
Next we noticed that high altitude leaders realize the necessity of taking some action, any action. For Chris, it was to continue upward past the stunned climbers, pay his respects to Nima, and then start laying out the new rope to the summit. Upon seeing this, the other climbers began to follow. They realized that instead of aborting the climb, or staying frozen, they needed to continue onward. We heard that historical pilot training was “wind the clock.” Back when you had to wind a mechanical clock in the cockpit, it gave the pilot some action to take which enable him to regain situational awareness. So, when panicked it doesn’t matter what action you take. Just start doing something!

Prevent Selfishness
In organizations, as in climbing teams, other dangers emerge when fear grips a person or a group. One of those is increased selfishness. At altitude, selfishness kills people when new strategies are critically needed to deal with injuries, equipment malfunction, limited resources, and threats of avalanche and weather. Likewise, in professional situations selfishness kills new ideas and covers up problems as staff let personal agendas drive their decisions. Postmortem business case-studies blame corporate failures on reasons like strategic missteps or poor implementations of good ideas. But digging deeper among the carcasses reveals that selfishness alone drove the agendas or cover-ups until it was too late. High altitude leaders overcome selfishness by driving their life from a fervor or zeal for achieving results that rises above it. And they inspire a higher passion in others. When passions are greater than selfish agendas, creative strategy emerges in spite of fear. But another danger still threatens professionals in the journey—cowardice.

Beware of Cowardice
Cowardice dangerously stops both mountaineers and professionals from challenging the status quo, holding others accountable, and exposing weaknesses. This danger happens as soon as people become too afraid to confront violations of accountability, take necessary risks, or perform the essential act needed for effective performance—telling the truth. Cowardice eats truth. Lack of truth eats performance.

Initially telling the truth can upset people and cause discomfort, but good teams love it and it drives accountability to new levels. The alternative of keeping the truth at unspeakable levels only produces collateral damage—fear-based behaviors that result in dead-weight ideas, poor performance, and doomed projects. High altitude leaders seek bravery in themselves which allows them to achieve the commitment and truthful communication necessary for taking action.

Remembering how to unfreeze yourself and others in the face of fear can save lives as well as drive great professional performance. As a high altitude professional, you can summit much higher than you ever thought possible.