A client, the CEO of a North American subsidiary of an international company, made the climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro this past month. While technically one “walks” to the top of this East African iconic peak, this is no small undertaking. Kilimanjaro rises from about 3,000 feet above sea level at its base to 19,336 feet tall. The base is in a tropical jungle with temperatures of around 800 F. at its base and anywhere from 00 to -150 F. at the peak.
The trail requires clambering over and up sizable boulders and in places is quite narrow and difficult to traverse with the peril of bodily harm. And, of course, climbing to such a high elevation carries a significant risk of oxygen deprivation and sickness which can be debilitating and occasionally even fatal.
What motivated a mid-40’s executive and family man to take on such a challenge? Initially, he was personally moved to change his behavior to a healthier lifestyle after a colleague was diagnosed, and ultimately lost his battle, with lung cancer over a six-month period. He stopped smoking and expanded his exercise routine, including jogging. As he said, he wanted to “choose my life.” When he decided to build on his new behaviors and identified Kilimanjaro as the challenge he wanted to undertake, he began training in earnest.
He exercised to build up his lung capacity, to strengthen his torso and legs and to increase his stamina. The one element he did not know how to train for was the dramatic climate change that would mean making most of the 7-day trek (4-1/2 days up, 2-1/2 down) in very cold to bitter, sub-freezing temperatures. And he had to carry a 20-pound backpack. What’s so interesting is that the traits of a leader manifest themselves in taking on this objective. He:
- Set his goals appropriately – first to return from the trip safely and secondly to summit Kilimanjaro.
- Assembled a team (of friends) who together would make conquering the mountain easier.
- Prepared for this physical and mental test by quitting cigarettes, running, and exercising aerobically at the gym.
- Acquired the necessary resources – clothing and equipment – to address the elements.
- Arranged for others in his organization to manage the company during his absence.
The CEO did not boast about his plans or his accomplishments, but soft-spoken individuals can be leaders just as much as charismatic individuals. Most importantly, he did what he said he would do. In so doing, and even though this was a personal undertaking, he set an example for the employees and other stakeholders in his company. Observing his preparation and approach well in advance of the climb, one of his organization’s executives was so taken with the model the CEO established that he undertook a weight loss campaign and dropped 50 pounds!
Leadership is a quality that is often hard to define but easy to observe. And those who observe it take note and will follow such leaders, often to the ends of the earth.