Leadership at the summit

a passion for climbing

Chris Warner has passed the test in life-or-death situations on mountainsides

November 23, 2008|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Chris Warner has cheated the death zone, where oxygen is thin and the weather brutal, to stand atop the world's two highest peaks, Mount Everest and K2 - the only Marylander to have done so. The Annapolis resident and certified Alpine guide owns Earth Treks, with climbing gyms in Columbia, Timonium and Rockville, and leads expeditions of business school students on team-building outings to the high peaks of South America and Africa. With Don Schmincke, a Maryland-based business consultant, Warner has written a book, "High Altitude Leadership: What the World's Most Forbidding Peaks Teach Us About Success."

Two years ago if you had written about leadership in the death zone, people would have thought, "How melodramatic." But in today's economy, we do have people struggling to lead in a business death zone. It's all timing, right?

These are the riskiest times most of us will face in our professional careers. We're either going to come out on top, or we're going to fail miserably. Typical in these deep recessions, there's a group of people that is going to come out on top, whether it's Warren Buffet trying to buy Goldman Sachs on the cheap, or GE on the cheap, or some of us who are going to try to take advantage of some commercial real estate opportunities wherever they happen to be. But it is a time when we can't afford to fail.

In both your mountaineering and business careers, your timing has been spot-on because Earth Treks is going strong, with 100,000 customers and a staff of 175, and you're still alive.

A lot of what I do is knowing when to turn around and go home. Look at climbing Mount Everest. I've been on Mount Everest and K2 three times on each peak, a total of nine months of my life, and I've only summited once on each peak. So I've spent nine months of my life trying to spend that 10 minutes on the top. The same thing happens here. We're always looking for opportunities for expansion and we know where we want to be for gym No. 4, but the right opportunity hasn't come along. If we just chase a location and overspend, then we're going to have a gigantic financial disaster.

Early in the book, you talk about "embracing death," or to put it another way, coming to grips with paralyzing fear. Is the fear of death in business the hardest thing to overcome?

We try to point out eight dangers - fear of death, selfishness, tool seduction, arrogance, lone heroism, cowardice, comfort and gravity - but business leaders might only face two or three of these dangers. We know that it's the fear of death that prevents us from being able to function. That's the crisis moment that everyone needs to avoid, and because it's so tied to the ego, it's so hard to do the right thing in those situations. It's so hard to admit you've been wrong. For example, it's so hard to close down parts of your business. At Earth Treks, we had a division that made handholds, and it never made money for us. But it was our baby, and we loved it. It kind of embodied a lot of our creative spirit. Eventually we sold it off to someone else, and it ended up being the best thing that ever happened.

How long did the mistake fester?

Oh, four years.

For many, the only mountaineering story they know is the Into Thin Air disaster on Mount Everest in 1996, when seven people, including expedition leaders Rob Hall and Scott Fisher, died. Your book is almost a companion piece, explaining the leadership missteps on Everest.

The breakdown, the leadership failures, are the real stories behind Into Thin Air. Rob Hall was arrogant. He told people before he left that he could get anybody to the summit of Mount Everest. So he was going to do that at all cost and it ended up costing him his life. Poor Scott Fisher - he was so in over his head. The fact that his marriage was failing, his business was failing, he felt that he had no choice but to be successful in this. So he was acting from that same fear perspective, and he was not able to make the hard leadership decisions. He didn't tell people to go down early. He didn't put resources in the right places. He didn't get a few to the summit instead of all to the summit and as a result of that, a lot of people died.

There is, though, a tipping point between a healthy ego, which it takes to be successful, and the selfishness and arrogance that sometimes corrupts an entire business model.

And that's what we're all searching for. The problem with the way leadership is generally taught in the United States is the assumption that there are these different traits you have to have to be a great leader. You have to be charismatic. You have to be a content area expert. You have to have deep empathy for other people. Well, some of us weren't born with all these talents and we might not ever develop them. But that doesn't mean we can't be an effective leader, especially in the moment.

Your moment comes on K2 in July 2007, when the leader of the Korean team falls to his death from 26,500 feet and everyone has to decide: continue up or descend. After paying your respects to the Korean team, you begin climbing and others follow. On the way down, you save a Czech climber, battle a snowstorm and deal with Italian climbers who refuse to search for one of their team members or assist an injured American. Back at base camp did you say to yourself, "I can't believe I did that"?

No. The overwhelming emotion of that day, and really the next few days, was honor. I felt like I was being put into a very unique position of leadership up there, where people were entrusting me with their lives. The weight of that responsibility did not crush me. I actually felt honored by it. ... It really drove me, that I was being given this incredibly important position, and I did not want to let anyone else die.

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