Leadership learning’s from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

Author: Andrew Thornton, AMI Chair


Photo: AMI Chair, Andrew Thornton, reaching Uhuru Peak 5895m – the Roof of Africa

I recently returned from trekking to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania – the world’s highest freestanding mountain and the highest in Africa at 5,895m or 19,341 feet above sea level.

When you take on such a monumental task, you put your faith in the experience of others – in this instance our Lead Guide, Florence, and his team.

Florence’s sole objective was to get all of us – our climbing group of 8 – to the summit and back safely.

What I found interesting was how he consistently and purposely motivated and managed the group under challenging and variable conditions. There were some clear lessons that can be just as effectively applied to the management of work place teams or the delivery of marketing projects as they are to climbing to the roof of Africa.

In the limited column space I have, let me give you a few examples:

  1. A consistent catch phrase was together we can…: It may sound obvious, but every morning, before setting out, Florence would remind us that we can only achieve our end objective if we all work together and support each other. And, indeed, we did even though half of our group had never met each other before the climb. This meant encouraging one another as we focused on achieving the short term goals that lead to our ultimate objective; or helping a team member when they found the going tough, and doing that little bit extra to help motivate the rest of the team.
  2. ‘Pole Pole’: Swahili for slowly, slowly. Slow and steady together was how we were going to achieve our objective of making the summit. We were constantly reminded of this mantra. And the lead trekker changed depending on how other members of the team were travelling to help set the right pace.
  1. Checky Checky’. By checking in with each of us each morning and evening (monitoring our health, mood and energy), Florence knew what modifications were needed to get the team through the day.
  1. After hours of trekking, we would ask: how far to the next camp?’ Florence would reply: “Just around the corner”. It usually wasn’t (except for when we neared camp, of course). The point being that Florence would manage our expectations; he set short term goals. If he had said we were 3 or 4 hours away from the camp, there was a risk of us becoming disheartened. The lesson being that by setting short term, incremental goals, you are more likely to achieve your end objective.
  1. Congratulations: after reaching the Summit, everyone of our 37 support team congratulated us on our achievement; they were all – regardless of their respective roles –a critical part of our success and joined with us in celebrating that success.

A final observation: Florence explained to us that everyone involved with the trek starts as a porter; his salient point being: How can I manage the team effectively without having been in their shoes?” Empathy and understanding of what your team is experiencing is a hallmark of sound leadership.

Whether it’s climbing a mountain or in our day-to-day working lives as managers and professional marketers, I believe we should all embrace these fundamental lessons.




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