Leadership: It's about how you get there

February 05, 2010

I'm at that stage in my life where I really don't care about stuff like leadership, productivity and adding value.

Sure, 10 years ago, I read "Getting to Yes," "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" and "In Search of Excellence." I even skimmed "The One-Minute Manager" because that seemed apt. But now I don't aspire to build consensus, be efficient and achieve unparalleled success in the process. I just want to do the right thing. And I don't care if you follow me or not.

I guess what I'm saying is: Go ahead and move my cheese all you want -- as long as you don't eat it, because I love cheese, particularly Havarti and Gorgonzola.

So what was I doing at a presentation on leadership last week at the central branch of my county library? Actually, I went for the slide show -- much the way you thumb through National Geographic and scan the captions or a paragraph here and there but mostly stare at the amazing visuals.

The speaker had climbed K2, one of the most brutal, human-resistant peaks in the world, something way out of my comfort zone, as evidenced by the fact that I once spent two nights in a pup tent and almost died of severe discomfort. He had scaled vertical faces in subzero temperatures; I tend to cut my dog walks short if I forget my thermal gloves. He had impressively led two seriously injured climbers back down the mountain to safety, whereas the most challenging trek I've made to date was through a CVS store in search of a digital thermometer while carrying a vomiting toddler.

Sometimes it's inspiring to hear about the astonishing things human beings are capable of when faced with extraordinary obstacles. Initially, the gist of his story seemed rather depressing. Upon reaching the summit, the physically strongest climbers with the most equipment and support abandoned all semblance of teamwork. They bolted down the mountain at the first sign of an impending snowstorm, leaving the weakest climbers behind. It was the classic "me first" behavior you saw on the elementary school playground, amplified in a life-or-death ice-climbing environment.

Fortunately for these compromised climbers, the speaker and co-author of "High Altitude Leadership," Chris Warner, didn't define leadership as being number one, being the first or being the fastest to accomplish something. Nor did he seem to define leadership as a kind of charisma or power that compels others to follow.

In fact, leadership seemed like an awful, awesome, solitary sort of thing in his harrowing descent of K2. Leadership was all about how you achieved the goal -- in this case, getting everyone down alive. So I have to admit that I enjoyed this dramatic, nice-guys-finish-best leadership presentation, and I even bought his leadership book (once I saw that it had some cool, National Geographic-style photos).

And while thumbing through it and reading the captions and an occasional paragraph here and there, it made me think of the many unheralded leaders I have known in my everyday life who share his selfless view. From the clerk at my local post office who waits cheerfully on every rude or indifferent customer, to the lone high school girl who stepped forward to dance with the boy without a partner on the homecoming court.

I can't help but wonder: If we encouraged, recognized and lauded these types of generous behaviors from childhood on, might not we see a few more of them? I truly believe that we'd all enjoy the great adventure of our lives a bit more if the focus weren't so much on getting to the top of something -- a mountain or a corporation -- but was instead on doing the right thing by our fellow human beings.

Let's all crouch in a cold, smelly pup tent in my backyard and ponder that for a while.

Janet Gilbert, a freelance writer, lives in Woodstock. Visit her at www.janetgilbert.net.

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