Monday, December 5, 2011

Lessons in Leadership: Mount Everest

Posted By: George Deeb - 12/05/2011


& Comment

I am a Mount Everest fanatic, as an avid mountain hiker and reader.  I have always been intrigued by the various styles and personalities of people that would put their lives at risk, in trying to summit Mount Everest.  It certainly takes a special breed of person to willingly enter the Death Zone (much like founders of startups).  In this post, we are going to compare and contrast two different expeditions and management styles: (i) the failed 1924 attempt by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, organized by  Sir Francis Younghusband; and (ii) the successful first summit attempt in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, organized by Sir John Hunt.

After the South Pole was successfully reached by Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, in 1912,  there was only one major objective not yet acheived by explorers: successfully getting to the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on the planet (at 29,035 feet above sea level) located on the border of Nepal and Tibet in the Himalayas.  And, in the great age of exploration, as empassioned by many great British explorers (e.g., David Livingstone, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton), Britain was determined to get a team to the summit first.

So, in 1921 and 1922, Britain sent two reconnaisance expeditions into the Everest region, both of which included George Mallory.  The expeditions were tasked with mapping a route into uncharted territory (in 1921) and for finding a navigable path to the summit (in 1922).  With such objectives acheived, the British launched their first formal summit attempt in 1924.

The 1924 Expedition is best summarized as an incredible feat for its day (given the inadequate equipment involved), but ended in tragedy with the deaths of four members of the expedition, including George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who were last seen around 800 feet from the summit  (so close to their objective) before a storm rolled in and they were lost forever.  The 1924 Expedition is well detailed in "The Epic of Mount Everest" by expedition leader, Sir Francis Younghusband.  It very much reads like a romance novel from the great age of exploration, with George Mallory famously saying he wanted to climb Mount Everest "because it is there."

In comparison, we have the 1953 Expedition that got Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay successfully up to the summit and back, with no deaths on the expedition.  It was the culmination of thirteen preceding failed attempts by the British, Americans and Swiss over a thirty year period.  The 1953 Expedition is well detailed in "The Conquest of Mount Everest" by expedition leader, Sir John Hunt.  It very much reads like a military war plan, with detailed logistics on moving all the required people, food and state-of-the-art equipment into the region, and up and down the mountain.  In comparison to the 1924 Expedition, it is pretty self-explanatory which approach worked best.  The British finally acheived their goal, but only after decades of learnings and failures that preceded it.

So, when building your startups, if this lesson has taught us anything, passion by itself will take you a long way.  But, it is not enough to always get you to the finish line.  You need to have good tutelage and wisdom from mentors that have "been there, and done that", who can help you build a better "blue print" than you could build by yourself.  The 1953 Expedition was successful, in large part, due to the learnings and failures of the 1924 and other expeditions that preceded it.  Who are your mentors that can help set your successful path to the summit??

And, secondarily, startup success can only be achieved with a crystal clear vision about what your mission is.  The 1924 Expedition meandered between exploration and scientific research objectives.  And, the 1953 Expedition was solely focused on getting a climbing team successfully up to the summit (and back!!).  So, make sure you and your team are firmly focused on the mission at hand with clearly communicated and agreed upon objectives.

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