Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Free Solo

A Reel Leadership Article

On June 3rd, 2017, Alex Honnold did the impossible. Alex free-soloed the 3,000 foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Free-soloing is the climbing of a rock-face without the use of any safety equipment. Alex had no harness, no safety net, nothing to catch him if he were to fall.

Such a feat seems nigh-impossible. To climb 3,000 feet into the air without safety equipment makes my mind hurt. It may make yours as well.

Alex Honnold free solo El Capitan

Photo: Free Solo

Having a passion for ice climbing, Free Solo caught my attention because of the high-risk behavior and the excitement of someone doing the impossible. Knowing there are people out there who are willing to risk life and limb to do what no other person is willing to do fascinates me.

The National Geographic film Free Solo tells Alex’s story as he prepares to free solo El Capitan. The film is a look into the mind of a climber who, at first blush, showed no fear in climbing El Capitan. The viewer gets an in-depth look at his life, his love, and his friends.

You’ll walk away with a newfound appreciation for those who climb. You’ll also feel sorry for Alex. And you’ll also discover multiple leadership lessons from Free Solo.

Today’s Reel Leadership article is going to look at the life of Alex Honnold and what his free climb of El Capitan can teach you about leadership.

Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Free Solo

1. Alex Honnold:

It’s not like I’m pushing, pushing, pushing until something horrible happens.

This Alex Honnold quote may seem out of place in a movie where he climbs 3,000 feet without ropes or safety gear. Yet the quote feels all too fitting for Alex and his climbing style.

Alex prepared for his ascent of El Capitan with exquisite detail. The notes he took during prior climbs of El Capitan were detailed. He had a plan in his mind. He tested multiple routes.

The climb was well-rehearsed. He wasn’t pushing himself beyond something he could do safely.

There are times when you feel like you have to constantly push yourself to get to the next level. Sometimes, you may feel the need to take a shortcut to get there.

You may feel pressured to cook the books, leave family and friends behind, or neglect good sleeping habits. These actions are pushing yourself to the breaking point.

Something horrible will happen if you continually push yourself. You have to be careful to temper your passion with caution.

2. Alex Honnold:

I like to differentiate between risk and consequence

Many people see risk and consequence as the same thing. Alex doesn’t. Neither should you.

Risk is the likelihood of something bad happening. Consequence is the result of your actions.

They’re similar but different. Be willing to take risks. Be willing to live with the consequences.

3. Reel in your emotions:

During one of his training climbs, Alex began to panic. He was feeling fear and unease about the climb.

Alex realized his feeling of fear was unfounded. He was as safe as he could be climbing. He had to reel his emotions in.

Leading is an emotional adventure. You have highs and lows. You have untold power over those you lead. Feeling fear can be an easy emotion to feel.

Yet you have to be careful in feeling fear. Or any other emotion. You can’t let your emotions dictate how you lead.

Leading requires you to set aside your emotions. To lead through fear.

This doesn’t mean you don’t feel emotions. This means you lead through them.

4. You’ll have questions while leading:

There were question marks all over the walls of El Capitan. What would it take to free solo El Capitan? How would you climb without safety equipment? Could a free solo ascent be done?

These were some of the questions people had of El Capitan and Alex Honnold’s attempt at free soloing the mammoth rock wall. The questions were there. They needed to be answered.

You’ll have questions as you lead as well.

Do I have what it takes to lead? Will people follow me? Do I even know what I’m doing?

Questions are a natural part of the leadership journey. Don’t let your questions stop you. Use those questions to help you lead better.

5. Discuss your next moves:

It would have been easy for Alex to isolate himself from others. He chose not to. Instead, he began to talk with fellow rock climber Tommy Caldwell.

They talked about how scary free soloing El Capitan would be. They bantered back and forth about what climbing techniques would work. And what climbing techniques would be disastrous.

As a leader, you can’t isolate yourself. This is why many leaders feel lonely. They are scared to open up to others about the challenges they’re facing.

But when you open up about your fears, you can begin to discuss your next moves. You will find there are other leaders who have been where you’re at. They will have a good idea of what will work and what won’t.

Be willing to open up to other leaders. Ask for their advice and input as you make organizational changes. You’ll be better for it.

6. Great leaders give back:

Alex wanted to do more than climb. He wanted to find a way to contribute to the world. He did this by creating a non-profit organization.

The Honnold Foundation was formed by Alex to bring electricity to people who did not have access to this life-changing technology. Through solar power and grid alternative energy, he’s using his climbing to bring change to people around the world.

Have you thought about what you could do to give back to your community or the world? There’s plenty you could do. Some options for giving back are:

  • Create a non-profit like Alex Honnold
  • Serve at a local food kitchen
  • Support a non-profit you believe in
  • Volunteer at your church or faith organization

Giving back doesn’t take a lot. However, giving back changes things.

7. Great leaders train:

There were few moments were Alex wasn’t training. He went to Morocco to train on the cliffs there. He had a finger pull-up bar in his van. Training was his life.

Why did Alex train? He trained because his life depended upon his training. If he wasn’t fit and capable of climbing 3,000 feet, he would die.

You won’t die if you don’t train. But you will be a less effective leader if you don’t train.

Training increases your leadership skills. You will see new ways to lead. You will learn new ways to handle conflicts. And you will be able to teach people how to become leaders.

Training leads to better leadership. Never stop training!

8. There’s a difference between physical and mental training:

Alex had to train in two different realms. The first was the physical. He had to be physically fit so his body could endure the endless climbing he would be doing. This was the easy training.

The difficult training came in the mental training. He had to train his mind to look past fear and nerves. He had to train to be fearless.

Leaders need to train like Alex did. They have to train their bodies. A physically fit leader is a healthy leader. A mentally fit leader is a great leader.

Work on both aspects of your life. You need to train your body and your mind. You can’t lead well when you’ve worked on only one of these areas of your life.

9. Alex Honnold:

You’re not stopping your fear. You move outside of it.

There’s always going to be fear or doubt in your mind. Alex knew this. He also knew he had to overcome the fear he had of falling.

What he did was to move outside of the fear. He learned ways to sidestep the fear and keep going.

If there’s a legitimate fear in your leadership, deal with it. Learn how to recognize the fear, see what needs to be done, and then move around it.

10. Leaders will get hurt:

During a practice climb with his girlfriend, Cassandra “Sanni” McCandless, Sanni made a mistake. She wasn’t paying attention to the rope and let the rope slip through her belay device. Because of this, Alex fell and had a compression fracture of two of his vertebrae.

Through all of his preparation, he didn’t expect this to happen. He didn’t expect to be injured in this way. Still, he was.

Leaders will face all sorts of injuries as they lead. They may get sick. Or they may have psychological wounds. Or they may have physical injuries.

Injuries are a part of life. Thus, they’re a part of leadership.

Know you will be hurt. Know you will also make it through the injury.

11. Alex Honnold:

I don’t want to fall off and die either, but there’s a satisfaction to challenging yourself and doing something well. That feeling is heightened when you’re for sure facing death. If you’re seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get. And it does feel good to feel perfect, for a brief moment

No one really wants to die. Alex surely didn’t. However, he kept pushing himself.

He found satisfaction in the next challenge. He also found pleasure in doing things well.

Are you pushing yourself to lead better than you did yesterday? You need to be.

You only get better when you challenge yourself. Push yourself to get better.

12. Leadership isn’t a straight path:

One of the amazing things about Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan was the climb wasn’t straight up. He had to go up, to the side, down, and back up again.

There was no straight path. It was crooked and jagged and looked insane.

Alex Honnold Free Solo Route For El Capitan

Image from New York Times

Leadership journies are a lot like Alex’s climb. They look crazy from the observer. Yet they are the best route you could take at the time.

You can’t worry if you shoot straight to the top or not. You have to take the best route you can to get to your leadership destination.

13. Jimmy Chin:

If you’re pushing the edge, eventually you find the edge.

Jimmy Chin directed Free Solo. He is also a friend of Alex’s. He also knows the dangers of rock climbing.

One of his other documentaries, Meru, details the life and death struggle of climbing. He almost died during the filming of that movie. Climbing is real. Climbing is dangerous.

You can only push so far. Eventually, you’ll come to the dangerous edge.

Be careful of how far you push yourself and others. You might push too far.

14. You won’t always see the path in front of you:

Alex’s first attempt to free solo El Capitan began at 4 AM in the morning. There was little to no light. It was hard to see where he was going.

Yet he began his climb. Not being able to clearly see more than a couple of moves ahead.

Isn’t it funny how you can’t always see the next step to accomplishing the mission you have for your organization? You have a plan, but you also can’t see 10 steps ahead. You can only see 2 or 3 steps.

Leadership isn’t for the faint of heart. You will have to take a step to see the next step. Be willing to take the step.

15. Alex Honnold:

It’s always about excellence and perfection.

Leadership shouldn’t be a game of good enough. To lead well, you need to lead with excellence and a mindset of perfection.

Find ways to lead well. To go above and beyond. To delight those you’re leading.

This is the way to great leadership. Be excellent.

16. It’s okay to bail:

The first attempt Alex made to free solo El Capitan, he called off. He was ascending Freeblast and said “no more.” He tapped out.

While many may criticize Alex for giving up, he was wise in doing so. By calling the climb, he was able to live another day. And to eventually climb the whole thing.

There’s a lot of bravado in leadership. We’re told quitting is for losers. However, that’s not true.

Winners quit. They bail. They say no… And they say it often.

They realize what’s working. They see what’s good or dangerous. And they make a choice to bail.

Don’t be afraid to quit. You will always have another attempt.

17. You will meet interesting people:

As Alex was climbing El Capitan, he came across a very interesting character. There was a climber who had camped on the rockface overnight. That wasn’t the interesting thing.

The climber, well… he was dressed in a unicorn costume. Yeah, that’s interesting.

You never know the people you will meet while leading. You will meet awesome, cool people. There will also be strange and odd people along your journey.

Embrace both. They both have their unique strengths and talents. Be willing to accept those you meet along the journey.

18. Celebrate and get back to work:

At the 2,050 foot mark, Alex took a minute to celebrate. He was two-thirds of the way to accomplishing his goal and he had a platform to rejoice.

There was a nice shelf he could walk out on. He raised his hands and celebrated for a minute. Then he got back to work.

Leaders have to take time to celebrate their achievements and the achievements of their team. Make time to celebrate what your team has done.

This will encourage and empower them to keep going. Celebrations are good. So is working hard.

19. You can do the impossible:

Who would have thought someone could free solo a 3,000-foot climb? I wouldn’t have. Heck, I have trouble free climbing 20 feet of ice. The thought of 3,000 feet gives me chills.

Yet Alex Honnold climbed 3,000 feet. He did it in 3 hours, 57 minutes. He did the impossible.

You will have many tasks laid out in front of you. Some of those will seem impossible.

However, I believe you can accomplish those impossible tasks. You have it within you to do great things.

Go do them!

Question: Have you seen Free Solo? If you have, did you take away any leadership lessons? If you haven’t seen the movie, what leadership lessons from Free Solo that I shared resonated with you? Let me know in the comment section below.

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