Conflict on the Mountain
By Greg Giesen
The two most important days in your life are the day you are born… and the day you find out why. -Mark Twain
After a quick breakfast and pep talk by Christian, we were quickly off on our journey, backpacks in tow and flashlights guiding our every step.
It was around four-thirty in the morning when Christian, our instructor, rousted us from our tents. We were in the eighth day of a grueling ten-day Outward Bound program and were waking up to the ultimate challenge of summiting Mount Massive by noon and returning to camp before dusk. At 14,421 feet high, Mount Massive is the second highest peak in Colorado and the third highest peak in the United States. Given that it would be a fourteen-mile round-trip hike, we knew we had our work cut out for us.
The first half of the hike up the mountain went flawlessly. It was especially exhilarating experiencing the sunrise and the ensuing warmth on our faces as we slowly weaved through a field of aspen trees. Everything was just so beautiful.
But then, without warning, a loud cry echoed through the trees. I looked toward the sound and saw Valerie rolling on the ground, clutching her ankle.
“Are you okay?” screamed David, as he rushed towards her.
“I’m fine; don’t worry about me,” shouted Valerie, loud enough so others wouldn’t keep asking the same question. Valerie was a trooper and wanted to reach the top of Mount Massive as much as anyone. In fact, aside from me, the other nine participants were all from out-of-state and had never climbed a fourteener before. This task clearly was not just a physical challenge; it was about bragging rights when they returned home. For them, reaching the summit was not an option—it was a mandate.
For the next hour or so, Valerie continued to downplay her sprained ankle, even though her slight hobble had turned into a very noticeable limp. The pace had slowed significantly and sometimes even came to a complete halt as Valerie tried to regain her composure. “I’ll get through this,” she kept saying to anyone who would listen.
It wasn’t long before the rest of the group began exchanging glances with one-another, some indicating concern and some frustration. It was becoming apparent that the goal of reaching the summit was now in jeopardy; a possibility no one wanted to admit or entertain. Finally, Jonathan broke the silence. “Valerie, what’s going on?” he clamored, clearly upset.
The tears in Valerie’s eyes spoke volumes. The group gathered around. “This is not working!” continued Jonathan.
“Then go without me,” yelled Valerie.
“Hold on a second,” said Kelly, Valerie’s closest friend, “this is a group decision.”
Within seconds we found ourselves sitting in an impromptu semicircle, arguing over our options and what was the “right” thing to do. Voices were raised, people were talking over each other, and no one was listening. We were fighting on the mountain. Half the group was pushing to abort the hike and take Valerie back to camp while the other half, including Valerie, wanted to press on, albeit at a much slower pace.
During this whole time, Christian was watching from afar, curious to see how this was going to play out. Finally, with no group progress whatsoever, he got up and approached us. “I can see this is an important discussion to have right now,” he said. “But I’d like to suggest that you move this conversation to a new location,” as he pointed to a different spot on the mountain.
At this point our group was so engrossed in our dilemma that we simply acquiesced, got up, and kept arguing as we moved to the spot Christian had chosen. Even our semicircle seemed to stay intact. Interestingly, not one of us, including myself, ever thought to question his request to move, let alone his motives. Clearly, we were completely oblivious to our surroundings and his guidance.
Christian, on the other hand, was very aware of our surroundings. He knew the mountain very well and noticed that in our initial attempt to problem solve, we had all positioned ourselves in a semicircle that faced down the mountain. We were primarily looking at where we had been, not where we were headed. Even our conversation had a downward, negative energy…as we assigned blame, took sides, and felt divided.
And then something almost mystical happened.
Now, instead of facing down towards the base of Mount Massive, Christian had moved us to a spot that faced the top of the mountain. It was the most spectacular sight I’ve ever seen, as the sun radiated off the summit, and the first time we had seen the top of the mountain that day. Even the trail all the way to the top was visible, making the remaining distance seem much more doable than imagined.
It was the strangest thing. I could not only see the summit, but I could smell the summit, taste the summit, touch the summit, and visualize being on top of the summit.
Without a word or an acknowledgement of what had changed, the group dynamics instantaneously shifted, as if on cue. The blaming, arguing, and negativity were replaced with excitement, amazement, and optimism. The conversation moved from debating options to a synergistic conversation on how to summit with Valerie at the helm.
What is so amazing to me as I tell this story is how Christian never explained his actions on the mountain that day. And yet his subtle gesture of changing the backdrop of our discussion provided the most profound insight and lesson around the importance of vision that I’ve ever experienced.
I am also happy to report that the whole group successfully summited Mount Massive, just minutes before the afternoon storm engulfed us. We accomplished this by carrying all of Valerie’s gear for her and having her lead the hike, all the way up to the top.
In the end, reaching the summit wasn’t nearly as significant for me as the transformation that we, as a group, had to go through in order to reach the top. And that couldn’t have happened without Christian’s gentle guidance and without the powerful vision of Mount Massive being so prevalent during our conversation on the mountain.
On that day, I learned many lessons about leadership that I will never forget. Specifically:
1) I learned the importance of having a vision; a vision that is so alive that it penetrates every pore of who we are.
2) I learned that groups handle adversity better when there is an overriding vision / purpose that ultimately unites them.
3) I learned the significance of focusing on where we’re headed (as an individual, group or organization) versus where we’ve been.
And most importantly,
4) I learned that leadership through action can be more powerful than leadership through words.
Sometimes it may take 14,421 feet in order to learn an important lesson, but trust me, it’s worth every step.
Greg Giesen is the Manager of People Development at the University of Denver and is the author of three books, including his latest, It’s All About Me: Stories and Lessons from The Geese.
photo by Sarah Strattan