Nine Observations on Leadership From North America’s Highest Peak

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he and the assistant eventually found some spare tent material, cut out a patch, and taped over the hole. No doubt, this guy was someone you want on your side in a tricky situation.

Make clear right away who’s boss. From the first minutes we gathered at the hotel in Anchorage, Riquelme made one thing clear—safety of the group was his responsibility, and his alone. Even though this kind of climb attracts strong personalities, safety judgments were never going to be the product of consensus or debate among strong-willed individuals. The mountain can be deceiving, the weather can be dangerous, and that was why we had hired a veteran guide. Riquelme made clear that he was more than happy to explain his reasoning around decisions after they’ve been made, but the inmates weren’t going to run this asylum. If he didn’t think it was safe to go for the summit, then we weren’t going to go for the summit. Period.

Once the authority was established, Riquelme was able to use it to his advantage. In one instance, he led us on a descent in the midst of a snowstorm, when many of us were cold and irritable. Yet no one stopped to shout, ‘Hey, Richard, think we ought to turn around and go back to camp?” which could have provoked a mini-mutiny. Instead, he took the first steps through the fresh fallen snow, following a route which he knew by heart. We got through that tense stretch, the storm lifted, and we all had some laughs as a group.

Be gentle and persuasive, not domineering. One of the most sensitive tasks Riquelme had to handle on the trip was an issue with a climber that suffered from acute mountain sickness (AMS). This person—a sincere, motivated guy climbing to raise awareness of human trafficking—struggled for several days in a row. Long past the point when others would have quit, he insisted he could continue. After witnessing several bad days in a row, I became concerned about the safety of the situation as we ventured onto the highest and toughest part of the mountain.

Riquelme wasn’t blind, but he had to proceed carefully. He had to balance a couple important considerations—one to the group, one to the individual. Clearly, group safety comes first, and a person suffering from acute mountain sickness could fall and pose a serious threat to the group. But he also had to be considerate of the individual, who worked hard to get there. Order the person off the mountain, and you’re inviting bitterness and second-guessing. Do nothing and you’re asking for trouble.

After a series of talks in which Riquelme shared his experience on the mountain, this person came to his own sensible decision that he needed to stop at 14,000 feet, while the rest of the team continued. It was heartbreaking for him, but the right call. We ended up re-uniting as a full team on the descent, and celebrating together when we were done.

Run a tight ship. Riquelme was no drill sergeant, but he did believe in instilling sharpness and discipline in our conduct. Little things, like letting 10-minute breaks drag to 15 minutes weren’t allowed. When it was time to get the team moving, he’d holler “3 minutes” as the signal to take your last swig of water, and get your backpack on and ready to move. Those little things might not seem like much, but they can add up quickly, and turn a 12-hour summit day into a brutal 18 or 20-hour team odyssey. All the risks of climbing—rockfalls, avalanches, frostbite, fatigue, storms—start to increase when you’re on the course longer than necessary. The message was simply this: Pay attention to doing the small things right and we’ll be better off in the end.

Don’t over-communicate. This was one source of frustration among a few of the climbers. Riquelme, a native of Chile who speaks Spanish, German, and English, didn’t reveal much about his thought processes on strategic decisions until after they had been made.

We understood him just fine for the most part, but still, communication wasn’t his greatest strength. One climber, a business executive clearly used to carefully planning out his days and weeks, kept up a constant stream of … Next Page »

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5 responses to “Nine Observations on Leadership From North America’s Highest Peak”

  1. Bill GhormleyBill Ghormley says:

    Wow, Luke!
    What an experience — what great takeaways!
    Thank you for taking us with you (;->
    Welcome back —

  2. scientre says:

    Enjoyed the last one – live in the moment. Whether Denali or drug development, focusing on the summit can be all consuming.

  3. BiotechStockResearch says:

    A most excellent essay.

  4. J. Thomas Ranken says:

    Great piece(s)!

  5. Rich Asiodche says:

    Sounds like a great experience!