Real Leaders

How Mountains Teach Us To Lead

I am dizzy today. I just got back from a four-day trail in the mountains just outside of Madrid with a group of Dutch executives from the Foundation for Natural Leadership. It all seems like a dream in a far-off land now, but deep inside of me I know this trail impacted my growth as a person and as a leader on a whole new level.

Intuitively I knew what I was getting into. We’ve been working on bringing this unique leadership program to Spain for a few months now. I’ve done my share of seminars in all kinds of techniques and therapeutic approaches in the past. I know that when you leave your life to share who you are and reflect on where you’re going with a group of strangers, your perception of yourself, your leadership and your business inevitably takes a great leap forward.

The mountains seemed to multiply the effect of feedback, introspection and learning.

What I experienced, however, went way beyond what happens on a day of leadership mirroring with horses or a weekend of reflection, debate and exercises in a classroom somewhere. The mountains seemed to multiply the effect of feedback, introspection and learning with such intensity that coming back to the city has been like a brusque awakening from a faraway adventure dreamland. Each one of us left a part of ourselves up among the solitary mountain peaks of Ayllon, uncovering other deeper truths about our values, our motivations and our intentions as we strolled down one slope, crossed a stream or climbed another tree covered hill. At night we shared our secrets with the group under the intimate glow of our camp fire when grabbing the talking stick put down by somebody else.

No matter how sure you may have been of all the intellectual things you were going to say, once you had the stick in your hands a certain weight came over you, stripping all your mental mess down to simple, humble truths. “Nature does all the work”, one of the senior trainers from the Foundation told me, as we replenished water supplies in our fifteen kilogram rucksacks at a small village fountain. And indeed Nature did add a special intensity to the physical challenges we placed ourselves in each day. Awe inspiring views mixed with the smallest of symbolic clues about life, growth, survival and death: this leaf, that flower, the way those plants react to the wind or the lonely eagle swooping over our heads… each one of us found our own parallelisms to the problems we face as leaders, executives, parents, husbands or wives, sons or daughters.

My biggest learning was, ironically, my most frequent teaching: flexibility.

My biggest learning was, ironically, my most frequent teaching: flexibility. I learned that climbing up the mountain requires strength, of which I have as much as I need to have. But coming down again requires flexibility. While the large muscles that cover our limbs, arms, chest and abdomen enable strong powerful movements, it is the much smaller muscles underneath which render us pliable and light as deer. The small muscles that wrap around our key articulations: ankles, knees, hips and necks. The hardest part of the trail for me was always coming down steep slopes. It wasn’t until the last day of the trail that I clearly saw myself over-complicating my descent with fear. Each step down was heavily calculated in my mind before I carefully tried my forward foot on a pointy rock. Exhausting amounts of energy invested in my back leg, fearfully grabbing on to the mountain in case my forward move should fail.

As my colleagues easily hopped along from bush to slope to stone to log, I painfully lagged behind sweating snowballs and swearing in all the languages I speak. A good thing the mountains didn’t judge me for my terrible language and my new found Dutch soul mates found me charming in my insistence to outdo myself whatever it took. As I descended the tallest mountain peak of our trail on the last day I gradually increased my speed, if only to relieve my worn out knees in order to make it to our final destination. Until I was told I seemed to be “dancing with the stones” way in front of the rest of the group. I’ve never felt so proud of myself. And I know that it has taken many years of risk taking, falling and getting back up again in business to finalize my own very flat learning curve of performance in the face of great uncertainties.

Back at work I can recognize the change in my pace as I walk faster into risky decisions.

Back at work I can recognize the change in my pace as I walk faster into risky decisions and dance with piled up stones of future cash flows, shifting rates, project deadlines and client engagements. I can see how I used to think fifty times about all possible scenarios before choosing my next step, and how it feels better and more effective to worry less as I lunge swiftly forward. Just as I learned to give in to the pull of gravity on those mountains, I am now much more confident about adapting to political movements that could hurt me badly or just as easily strengthen my position. I’m not the only one who is good at climbing mountains with strength, effort and intelligence, but bad at flowing down with carefree flexibility. It seems to be a sign of our time.

It is so generalized among the elite of socioeconomic leadership society. We value will power and strong muscle tone above all else. Yet we show complete inability to give in to the pull of shrinking markets, falling prices or soon-to-be obsolete technologies. We’re all about youthful energy, so much so that we seem to be running backwards in time, trying to avoid old age, retirement or the unspeakable ‘D’ word. Both individually and organizationally. I have come to define leadership as perfect adaptation to every business context. I’ve learned that it’s all about fluidity, dancing with the stones of destiny and the cliffs of failure.

As I gradually improve my own reactions to become faster and more exquisite in my own battles with the swords of uncertain global economies, I see myself needing smaller resources, fewer hours of work, lower amounts of investment and way less clothes, outfits or adornments. The secret to reducing world trash is surely hidden behind our epidemic inability to give in to destiny.

The secret to reducing world trash is surely hidden behind our epidemic inability to give in to destiny.

You might like to think you are already a very flexible guy. But let me kindly disagree. Unless you grew up among wild animals or aboriginal tribes, my dear reader, you carry the chronic rigidity of civilized ideals in your muscles and your bones just as much as I do. Our increasingly littered mountains and oil-smeared oceans are begging us all to give in to the pull of our fears, our sorrows and angers… all those inner mirrors that hold us against the loving embrace of gravity, destiny and wilderness.


More like this

Most Recent Articles