Leaders Need To Get On Belay

One of the coolest experiences I’ve had was a recent ice climbing excursion to the upper peninsula of Michigan. The time was spent with a great group of guys all looking for adventure and finding it in the great outdoors. Not only that, it also taught me a valuable leadership lesson.

Image by Laurel Fan

Image by Laurel Fan

A term often used in climbing, whether it be rock climbing or ice climbing, is belay. For those of you who don’t know what belaying is, belaying refers to a series of techniques climbers use to exert friction on a climbing rope so their climbing partner will not fall far. The climber on belay does this by applying friction through the use of a belay clip and keeping the rope taut.

Being on belay is an interesting experience. You’ve basically got another person’s life in your hands. If you’re not focused on the other climber, there is a chance you could cause a major accident. At the same time, it’s also a very rewarding experience. Especially when you help someone ascend the ice face to conquer the climb.

Do I have your attention? Are you wondering what this has to do with leadership? Through the ice climbing experience, I was able to see three areas belaying relates to our roles as a leader.

Belaying can be uncomfortable. So can leadership: When you’re on belay, you’re not very active. Other than a few arm motions, you’re fairly stationary. In cold weather, when you’re belaying while your climbing partner is climbing a waterfall this can quickly lead to you becoming very cold and uncomfortable. There will even be times when you will get wet because of the flowing water.

As leader, you’ll be put into situations where there is great discomfort. Difficult situations will arise and cause you stress. You will have to make difficult choices that will affect the lives of those on your team.

All of these situations can be uncomfortable. Yet great leaders persevere through the tough spots and lead their team well.

Being on belay is about helping another person rise to the top: As a belayer, you’re helping another person ascend to the peak. Without you, they may have failed to reach the top or, worse, fallen and become injured. It’s all about the help you’re providing that allows them to reach their goals.


Leaders who are looking out for their team do much the same. Great leaders know it’s not about them, it’s about their team and helping them reach their full potential. They’re looking out and finding ways to help those under them rise to the top. With a pull here (encouragement) and a catch there (empathy), leaders lead their teams on to personal and organizational success.

Belaying teaches you to be ready: As your climbing partner is going up the rock face or the ice wall, there is always the risk of a fall. You’ve got to keep your eye on the climber and make sure the rope is tight. You never know when there will be a bad strike and the climber will need your assistance.

You need to do the same as a leader. Watch your team, give them slack, but be ready for when your team will need you.

Leaders know they have responsibilities to their team. They weren’t blessed with the role of a leader just to benefit themselves.

To be a great leader you need to get uncomfortable, help others, and to be ready for unexpected situations. Do these and you’re on your way to becoming a leader worth following.

Now, are you ready to get on belay?

Question: When have you learned a leadership principle from something not related to leadership? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • DS

    Isn’t it amazing what we can learn when we keep our mind open, take time to reflect, and try to understand how things apply across the line? I’ve been waiting to read about some of the ice climbing lessons. Great illustration about belaying. For anyone who’s served in that capacity, it truly is a different experience knowing how much faith a person has in you.

    • It is and I think that’s one of the best things about life. The learning experience!

  • I am literally freezing just thinking about this 🙂

    You almost lost me at “flowing water.” But…the reward, as you say, is incredible.

    Ironically, I learn most of my leadership lessons in the oddest ways, like from a hedge trimmer (http://www.mattmcwilliams.com/leadership-lessons-from-a-hedge-trimmer/)

    Or running… (http://www.mattmcwilliams.com/furniture-mover-visualize-rehearse-success/)

    Sorry for the links, but those stories are best left to not repeating here 🙂

    One of the things I started doing last summer was carrying a journal with me most places (date nights with my wife are a rare exception) and simply recording thoughts as they occur.

    When the hedge trimmer incident occurred, my journal was not too far away and I wrote it down. It changed the way I operate.

    It’s kind of crazy…I was 33 years old. I know a lot. And I was doing yard work. And I had an epiphany that changed my life. That is kind of cool.

    • Aww, come on Matt! It’s not too bad out there. The weather was beautiful for that time of year, mid to upper 20’s. Toss on the proper outdoor gear and you’ve got the ability to stay nice and toasty.

      So cool Matt! Life lessons in everything we do. Keep recording and sharing them!

      • HAHA! But I am from the south. You see me up here in what I call the tundra of NE Indiana just taking the dog out. I look like the Michelin Man I am so bundled up.

        • Great visual Matt on the Michelin Man. I have definitely seen people bundled like that in Michigan as well. But, seriously, the jackets and pants made for ice climbing are amazingly warm.

  • “Leaders know they have responsibilities to their team. They weren’t
    blessed with the role of a leader just to benefit themselves.” – simple truth that floored me this morning.

    I’ve had so much going on in my mind and heart lately that the young professionals group I lead has gone to the wayside in many ways. Yet, when I seek all those things happening in my heart and mind, they’re all self-related concerns.

    But I know God has put me in this leadership role for a reason and your quote is 100% right – He wants me to cultivate a servant’s heart – the belay – and that’s a good thing.

    I don’t think I have any lessons I’ve learned from something unrelated – I’m really just diving into the leadership topic recently but now I’m going to be more aware.

    Thanks Joe!

    • Cool Jeff. I hope you’re able to get back into the young professionals group.

  • And great leaders shout “Climb On” when their team is ready to take the next step. Good stuff, Joe!

    • That they do. There was plenty of that being shouted during the ice climbing trip.

  • That’s funny that you bring this up, we have been watching ‘Everest’ on Netflix. It’s crazy what it’s takes to climb, very physical. Many people die trying to climb that mountain.

    • Crazy! Yeah, I’m not sure I’d ever attempt Everest but a couple of 50-80 foot climbs are exciting and not as dangerous as Everest.

  • I love the UP – we spent some time there on vacation a few years ago…it is beautiful, but we went in summer. Parenting has taught me a lot about leadership – my son is a mirror of my habits and actions, it is very convicting!

    • Glad you’ve gotten to enjoy the UP as well Tom. It’s, as they say, God’s Country up there. After this visit, I can see why!

      I can see how parenting would teach about leadership. You’ve got to develop methods and processes for dealing with the situations that come and go while parenting.

  • Dave Arnold

    Good thoughts Joe. Did some climbing years ago – and you are spot on. We need others. This is a principle for all of life.
    Thanks for the reminder!

  • Joe, I love this leadership example. And the willingness to be uncomfortable, to help others, and to realize it’s about the team effort and not a solo feat. (Side note: when people take you on these excursions, I do wonder whether everyone is waiting while Joe stops to write down leadership lessons and aha! moments as you are working your way up.) 🙂

    • Thanks Skip. It sure was a learning experience.

      As for holding up the rest of the group, that didn’t happen here. The ideas stewed in my mind and I was able to capture them later. Now, the next big trip (zip lining in Kentucky) may be a different story!

  • Pioneer Outfitters


    I am so glad to have found you today. I am new-ish to the Lead Change Community (still listening, reading, thinking how I may contribute) and your lead-in caught my eye.

    What an absolutely perfect example, Joseph, of Leadership and of what Nature herself, has to teach us, if we would simply… take note.

    I am an Alaska Professional Big Game Hunting and Wilderness Guide. As the Manager for Pioneer Outfitters and the Lead Trainer for one of the only (there are only two) state-approved Survival & Guide Training programs, a single mom and trauma survivor, I see the lessons for life, leading and happiness in these experiences, every day.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts/ lessons.

    • Thanks for stopping by. I hope you’ll find great value in what I share on the blog.

  • David

    Please, all you leaders out there, don’t forget, that those you belay for also belay for you …..

    • David, that’s true as well! Through the adventure, the roles change and there will be times those you’ve belayed will be belaying you.

  • Joe,

    As a young Sergeant in 2008 completing my 3rd tour in Tallil, Iraq I experienced some valuable lessons. I managed a team that provided comms to the entire COB (contigency operating base). Sometimes this included running wire on some not so nice places.

    This day we were running comms for the criminal investigation command (CID) and it required going underneath the building. It would require someone to crawl underneath the building on there stomach. At that moment I decided I would go under the building. I wanted my Soldiers to know first hand that I would not ask them to do something I was unwilling to do myself.

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