Experience Isn’t Everything

Longtime readers of my website know I have a love of ice climbing. Attempting to climb frozen waterfalls on a chilly day, what could be better? Nothing, in my opinion but yours may differ.

Climbing a waterfall in Houghton, Michigan

Image by Rick Elrod

I’ve been climbing every year for the last 6 years. Every year, I feel challenged and invigorated. This year was a little different.

Meet The Experienced Climbers

That’d be me. And a guy named Jason. We’ve been on multiple ice climbing trips over the years. Every year we see improvement in our climbing.

We’ll try to tackle climbs that are 60, 100, or 150 feet high. Vertical, inverted, traversing… We’ll try them and typically conquer them.

The challenge of climbing these ice formations are a blast. They also take a toll. Especially as we get older.

This year, I went on a 3-day climbing excursion with a great group of guys. I’ve already mentioned Jason. There was also Andy and Rick. These two are amazing climbers who have years of experience behind them. They crush the climbs.

Then we had Brandon and Freddy.

Enter The Newcomers

Brandon and Freddy were noob climbers. This was their first year and they had no experience ice climbing. They were fresh and inexperienced.

Excitement coursed through their veins as they were chomping at the bit to climb their first climb. And they were good.

They attacked the climbs with vigor, strength, and energy. You could see there was something special in these guys. They had the climbing gene.

When New Meets Experienced

After Andy set up a climbing line on a beautiful ice wall on the shores of Lake Superior, he offered a challenge: If you can climb this without dying, you get $20 towards dinner tonight.

Me, being the tightwad I am, was all in. I knew I could climb the ice without falling. I went at the wall.

Ice tool chipping into the ice. Crampon kicking into the ice. Up and away!

And then I fell. I died.

Inexperience can beat experience - Joseph Lalonde falling off of an ice climb

Image by Freddy Bahena

Again and again, I attempted to climb with my previous knowledge and experience. I died each time. I couldn’t stay on the way and kept falling.

But what happened with Brandon and Freddy? How did they climb with their inexperienced selves?


These two young men killed the climb and made it to the top without falling. Multiple times.

While inexperienced, they climbed better than my experienced self. They didn’t need the experience. They had a great technique.

How Inexperience Can Beat Experience

What went wrong? Why wasn’t I able to make it to the top of the climb?

I have my thoughts. I wasn’t able to climb better than the inexperienced ice climbers because:

Great technique beats bad technique: Yes, I had the experience. However, I lacked the proper climbing technique when I returned to the ice after almost a year of not climbing. This lack of practice made my technique poor. I wasn’t climbing properly.

Freddy and Brandon, they had great technique. They were sticking their ice tools in the right spot and stepping up with their crampons the right way.

What does this mean for you? Just because you’ve been leading for an extended period of time doesn’t mean you have the proper leadership technique to lead well. You may have been leading the wrong way for years. Once you realize your leadership technique was wrong, changing your technique can be hard.

Inexperienced leaders can be more willing to quickly adapt their techniques: When I hit the ice, I felt like I knew what I was doing. I’d been in this situation so many times, it should have been second nature. It wasn’t.

As I flailed my tools, I knew my technique wasn’t right. Yet I tried to strike the same way over and over again. I also tried to place my body in the same position. A position that wasn’t working.

I had trouble adapting my technique to the ice. I believed I could climb because I’d done it before.

The new ice climbers weren’t stuck in their ways. They would try something new and see if their technique worked. If it did, they continued with the same ice climbing technique. If their technique didn’t work, they tried something new.

Experienced leaders can get stuck in techniques that either worked in the past or they believed worked. Either of these mindsets is dangerous. You have to be willing to adapt your leadership techniques as they become ineffective or you realize they don’t work.

Experienced leaders can become overconfident: I felt confident. Cocky even, as I began to climb. I knew I had this.

But I didn’t. My overconfidence in my skills made me sloppy. Made me trust too much in what I thought I knew.

Once again, this is where the inexperience of the new climbers came into play. These two men didn’t know how to ice climb. And they knew they didn’t know what to do.

So they listened. As the experienced climbers belayed and watched them climb, they were able to give out helpful advice. Advice these new guys were willing to take.

They weren’t overconfident. In fact, I think they may have lacked confidence. Yet this served them well as it made them open to the advice of people who had gone before them.

You may feel like you have this thing called leadership down. You know the next steps to take or who to talk to next.

Be careful of letting your experience making you overconfident in your abilities. Be open to listening to others who have been there and done that. Their experience is valuable. And most likely available for you to discover.

You can see how experience can cloud your vision as a leader. You may wind up overconfident or unwilling to adapt to new situations. Or you might have been practicing leadership wrong this whole time. Building upon bad leadership techniques.

Know you can change. You don’t have to continue leading with bad techniques or being unwilling to adapt or with overconfidence. You can change.

By the third day of ice climbing, things began to click again. We went to a small ice climb in Munising at Twin Falls. And, this time, I crushed it.

My body remembered the right technique and moved like the days of old. It felt good to climb well.

Joseph Lalonde at the top of the ice climb at Twin Falls in Munising Michigan

Image by Freddy Bahena

When you remember what great leadership looks like, the experience you gained begins to kick in and you begin to lead well again. Be that leader who leads well with experience.

Question: Do you believe the inexperienced leader has an advantage over the experienced leader? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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