Some years ago now I took part in a fundraising challenge in Tanzania – climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. I joined 24 other people, all raising money for Bridge2Aid. We were led by a guy who actually probably isn’t human – a man mountain called Henk Blenckenburg. I’ve since worked with Henk a couple of times and my respect only grows. He spends his whole time leading treks, climbs, long distance cycle tours and other challenges across the globe. Barely a week goes by when he doesn’t get tagged by a new group on another challenge.
This guy know a lot about getting teams to gel, and helping people believe in themselves.
This leadership theme, all part of team engagement has been a big part of my theme this past month. A story Henk told is probably the best example motivational talk I’ve ever heard.
We had already summited. A gruelling, exhilarating and life-changing eight days was behind us. I asked Henk over a beer what was the most extreme pep talk he’d ever given.
He had led an event the year before with a group of around 16 young people, and had got delayed with half the group on the initial ascent of the final scree slope. This is a painful and laborious section of the summit which takes around 8 hours overnight. After the scree you reach Gilman’s Point, and from there it’s another 2 hours on and 200m up to Uhuru Peak – the actual summit of Kilimanjaro.
Once he reached Gilman’s and daylight came, Henk left the stragglers with the Tanzanian Guides and headed off to try and find the group who had gone ahead. After about an hour, he was surprised to find them walking down the path towards him, tired and deflated. They explained that they had got to Stellar Point, around halfway between Gilman’s and Uhuru, and found it too tough – they were exhausted, had really bad headaches and were throwing up. He checked them over for injuries, made sure they had plenty of water, and then looked into their eyes to make sure there were no signs of severe mountain sickness. Seeing nothing, his words to them then stick with me every time I get into a tough spot.
‘Now listen to me’ he told them, ‘you’ve come this far. You get one chance at this and once chance only. There is nothing wrong with any of you. Now turn the f*ck around and get back up that mountain…’
The lessons for me, that I believe apply to leading and engaging your team?
Enthusiasm and positivity sets the tone – Henk set a high expectation – the night before we climbed, he had enthusiastically told us that ‘this would be the best night of your lives!) and he was right…
He made sure there was nothing else wrong – we simply cant charge on regardless of our team’s pressures, if theres something we need to address with them or support them with, we must do that first.
Create belief – In the face of a lack of personal belief, and when their growth (through facing the challenge was at risk, he instilled it in them, in no uncertain terms. If leadership is about anything, it’s about getting your team to achieve more than they personally thought was possible.
I often reflect on this story. Henk was right, summiting Kili was the best night of my life. As well as the hardest. I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from him and how it has made me a better leader.