5 Leadership Lessons Learned From Ice Climbing

The last 4 years have seen me attempting to conquer a major fear of mine: Heights… Yeah, the man who has jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet and climbs frozen waterfalls is petrified by heights.

That’s one of the reasons for my many crazy adventures. Especially ice climbing along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

leadership lessons learned from ice climbing

Through these climbs, I’ve seen many leadership principles carried out. And I want to share them with you today.

Leadership Lessons From Ice Climbing

1. Offer encouragement: Four years ago, I was a newbie to the ice climbing world. All I’d ever seen were pictures and videos of other ice climbers.

While it looked awe-inspiring, it also looked dangerous and scary. Especially for someone scared of heights.

This year, we had 5 new climbers on our trip and I was reminded of this.

One climber was absolutely frozen, no pun intended, by the prospect of climbing more than 5 feet. He struggled to stick the ice tool higher and to lift his foot. He didn’t want to move.

Yet, there was encouragement spoken from below. Other climbers gathered around and offered positive affirmation that he could do it.

And he did. By the last day, he was making multiple climbs.

Those words of encouragement helped him continue up the frozen waterfall. They helped him get past a portion of his fear.

As leaders, we can do the same thing for our team. We can offer words of encouragement that will help them move onward and upward.

Don’t be scared to be encouraging. It’ll only help your organization.

2. Listen to feedback: During your ascent, your body receives a lot of feedback.

From the THWACK of the ice tool into the ice to your muscles aching, you will hear a lot of things. Each sound is telling you something.

You can TELL when you have a good stick with your ice tool. You can HEAR whether or not the ice is cooperating. You can FEEL if you’ve taken a large enough step.

Ice climbing is about listening to the feedback you receive from your environment. Leading is very similar.

You’re constantly receiving feedback.

You need to LISTEN to what your team says. You need to SEE how people are reacting. You need to FEEL the atmosphere in the office.

Each piece of feedback you are aware of, the better you can lead.

3. Build a community: Every year I’m impressed by the climbers that join the group. For the most part, we don’t know each other.

By the time we leave, we feel like family. Almost like we’ve known each other for ages.

That’s the community we build as we climb the ice.

We have to rely on each other. We get to share our stories with one another. We struggle and succeed together.

That’s community.

The team you lead can be a lot like this. If you let them.

4. Have a “So What” attitude: John, our guide on these ice climbing adventures, shared a poignant story with us this year.

Years ago, when he wasn’t a skilled ice climber, his mentor showed him a route he wanted him to take. John pushed back and said he couldn’t do it. He would fail.

Do you know what his guide told him?

So what? So what if you fail? You’re in a safe place. You won’t grow if you don’t experience failure.

John took on the challenge and he failed. He wasn’t able to make the climb. He was, however, able to learn from his failure and improve his climbing.

This year, I attempted a transition from an ice sheet on a rock wall to the back of the waterfall. I was fearful. I thought I couldn’t accomplish this.

I did. But then I failed in my traverse around the edge of the fall. I fell. And I fell. And I fell again.

I faced failure too…

We’re fearful of failure. It’s not something that is pushed in the typical organization. We want success and accomplishment. We don’t want failure.

This is a mistake. We’re failing to learn if all we do is go for the sure success.

Growth takes risk. Growth takes challenge. Growth takes failure.

Get a so-what attitude for the things that aren’t mission-critical.

5. Help others succeed: An aspect of ice climbing I haven’t enjoyed in past years has been being on belay.

Being on belay means you’re the anchor for the person climbing. You’re putting tension on the rope and preventing a nasty fall.

There’s plenty of reasons that I disliked it. Mostly because I was scared of the other climber getting hurt on my account.

This year was different. Something took hold of me and I began to enjoy belaying.

I believe this is due to the fact that being on belay meant that I was helping someone else succeed. They were able to obtain new heights that wouldn’t have been possible without someone helping them climb.

As a leader, this responsibility falls on you. You’re the belay for your team.

You can give your team extra leverage to get to the next mark of success. You can show them where the next safe footing is. You can lift them up.

Question: What leadership lesson from ice climbing most resonates with you? Why? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.

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