A Pioneer's Lessons

Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 10:11

Great achievements invariably have imagination, planning and hard work behind them. David Parmenter outlines some leadership lessons from pioneering explorer Sir Edmund Hillary.

The late Sir Edmund Hillary was credited with many things, but few have realised what a great CEO he was. Having climbed Mount Everest as the member of a team, he subsequently achieved everything else as the leader, as the CEO.

Less well known than Hillary's historic scaling of the world's highest mountain peak was his involvement in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (CTAE) in the late 1950s. This enterprise successfully completed the first overland crossing of Antarctica, via the South Pole. The expedition, headed by British explorer Dr Vivian Fuchs, had Hillary leading a supplies support team.

Hillary's View from the Summit, and the recently published Hell-bent for the Pole by reporter Geoffrey Lee Martin who was covering the South Pole expedition for New Zealand press, provide valuable lessons for today's business environment.

Lesson 1. If you want to be picked for the "summit" team, ensure you don't just rely on reputation.

Hillary knew there were at least three pairs of climbers in Sir John Hunt's 1953 expedition capable of making the summit of Everest. Hillary wanted to make sure that Hunt would not overlook his and mountaineer Tenzing Norgay's team. So he devised a test of stamina that would show they were the fittest team.

They succeeded in ascending from base camp to advanced base and back in one day, a task previously carried out in two. It would seem the test had little purpose other than to be a thoroughly convincing demonstration of capability.

How often are we surprised when we are not chosen to lead a special project or are passed over for that position when it was there for the taking? In business one has endless opportunity to highlight one's strengths and to demonstrate to the CEO and the senior team you are the one.

Lesson 2. If you ignore the politics, having the best team does not necessarily mean success.

Hillary had successfully climbed many peaks with countryman George Lowe in the 1952 and 1953 climbing seasons. They were clearly the best Himalayan climbing team based on current experience. But, having joined the Hunt expedition and already half-way to Everest, Hillary realised that the two New Zealanders would never be allowed to the summit first on a British-sponsored expedition. Hillary changed his climbing partner, teaming up instead with Tenzing Norgay, and eventually became the first to ascend to the summit.

In building a successful team, you need to take account of all stakeholders. Indeed, in many cases you will need to make alternative team member selections to take account of these. You will still get the job done and the team will still work, but you need to be prepared to be flexible, cognisant of the stakeholders' needs, perceptions and the "politics" they are themselves answerable to. Only then will you be first to the summit.

Lesson 3. When selecting a team make sure they are multi-skilled and have a sense of humour.

Hillary was very careful on his selection of staff. He recognised that in times of difficulty you want to have someone who can laugh at adversity, as Sir Edmund was famous for. The last thing he wanted was a team member going into a panic or looking for a scapegoat.

In addition, Hillary looked for a collection of skills in an individual. He recognised that having more staff does not necessarily make the team stronger. For example, the South Pole expedition's reporter Geoffrey Lee Martin also doubled up as a tractor driver, and the team's doctor had undertaken a dentistry training course.

CEOs must guard against appointing staff who are one dimensional: excellent when the going is easy but the first to throw their arms up in alarm when a crisis arrives.

Lesson 4. Humility and drive are good bedfellows.

Hillary's recent obituaries without fail mentioned how little he sought for himself. While he achieved at everything he participated in, he never sought the limelight.

His legacy includes The Himalayan Trust, a non-profit organisation set up after Hillary's first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. The organisation is dedicated to improving the living conditions and economy of the Sherpa people living in the Himalayas, undertaking projects including a hospital, schools and forest nurseries. Today, there are Sherpa pilots, doctors, nurses and lawyers who where taught to read and write through his schools. There are many children, including my daughter, who would say of Hillary: "He has taught me that anything is achievable".

It is worth noting that the meaning of life for many people can be summed up in one word: legacy. Some people leave a legacy through their children, some through their inspiration to others, and some through their own deeds. CEOs and senior managers must remind themselves every day that humility is a strength, not a weakness.

Lesson 5. Dreaming of your goal.

Hillary was an avid comic-book reader in his youth and on long walks would imagine himself as a hero. He read about and worshipped the arctic explorer Shackleton, and later on dreamed of being the first to climb Everest. You may ask why the first team in Hunt's expedition was unsuccessful? Equipment failure was the line.

Yet, would they have been able to invent a new way for climbing with oxygen bottles when they came up against the famous "Hillary Step"?. The Hillary Step is a near vertical rock face about 12 metres high on Everest and is the last challenge before reaching the top of the mountain via the south-east route. The step was named after Hillary, who with Norgay, was the first person to scale it on the way to the summit. Hillary improvised a climbing/shuffle technique, with oxygen bottles in a backpack and using his feet as a wedge, made it through this final barrier.

It was the drive to succeed that pushed Hillary to, in his words, "Knock the bugger off". As a CEO you need to dream of your eventual goal. To smell, see, feel, touch and hear what it would be like to succeed.

Lesson 6. Sometimes "giving it a go" when your instincts are saying otherwise is not such a great idea.

Twice on the trans-Antarctic Expedition across the South Pole, Hillary's team attempted and failed to cross over, with his adapted Fergusson tractors, ice bridges that he felt uneasy about. In each case he was able to later find a safer route, which no doubt would have been the better option in the first place.

How often in business do we continue on a path when everything around us is sending signals to stop or change course? We are compelled, like lemmings, to complete the task rather than listen and change.

When you find yourself about to say "let's give it a go", stop, and invest some time looking for an alternative route: you may well find the safe "ice bridge" you are looking for.

Lesson 7. Learn to know when you should seek help.

Hillary sought the help of US Admiral George Dufek on a number of occasions during his expedition to the South Pole. Dufek was part of the US Navy support operations to establish a polar research expedition at the Pole. Dufek helped Hillary choose the site of Scott Base, now New Zealand's main base in Antartica, which has been used continuously now for research for over 40 years. Dufek also helped Hillary at other critical stages of the expedition.

For some of us seeking help is a sign of failure or weakness, whereas in reality it can offer that critical leap up the ladder of success. In business, many costly failures could have been averted if advice had been sourced from a trusted and wise mentor. The key is the selection (and use) of your mentor/adviser, and to realise that just because you have asked once does not preclude a second, or third, request for help.

Find a mentor and seek advice on those major decisions and you will notice the difference.

Lesson 8. In all projects, other goals can be achieved if you have provisioned for them.

Hillary, when asked by Vivian Fuchs to provide a New Zealand support expedition to his grand trek across of the Antarctic, had in the back of his mind the possibility of the Kiwis also getting to the South Pole. Right from the start the provisions and planning did not preclude this as a possibility, although it was never on the official agenda. In the end, his successful South Pole expedition was not only a triumph of Kiwi ingenuity, but also the end result of a great vision (who would have put money on getting three converted tractors to the South Pole?).

It is not uncommon to be halfway through a project and come to the realisation that more significant goals could have been achieved if some planning and provisioning had been done in the first place.

Had Hillary kept strictly to his project brief, the Kiwi involvement in the expedition would have long been forgotten. Always keep a look out for other possibilities when planning your next project; it's always possible that the evidence of your leadership efforts will actually be in the other goals you have achieved along the way.