Leadership lessons from the rock face

Two UCalgary researchers have found that characteristics essential to rock climbing can also contribute to success in business leadership.

By Karen Thomas
August 2016

 

Business has learned many lessons from elite sports. High-performance athletes require tenacity, resilience, the ability to incorporate feedback and learn new skills, the will to win and overcome setbacks, and a relentless openness to learn and grow. The same is true for successful business leaders. A multitude of books have been written about that: Stephen Covey’s world-known The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and Jim Collins’ bestseller Good to Great spring to mind. Certainly, anyone who has a terrible boss can tell you the features of a bad leader.

Diane Bischak, PhD, a leadership fellow at the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership at the Haskayne School of Business, offers us a new framework for assessing leadership. One weekend, on a rock face above Canmore, she began to draw parallels between leadership and her favourite pursuit – rock climbing. “The leader and her teammate are at two ends of the same rope," says Bischak. "It’s a two-way street where you are dependent on one another. You can’t lead safely if you can’t communicate clearly.”

Her colleague, Jaana Woiceshyn, PhD, associate professor of strategy and global management at the Haskayne School, sees many parallels between rock climbing and business, arguing that being ethical is paramount to leading well. “On the rock face, there is nowhere to hide," says Woiceshyn. "You do what you say – you are dependable. That’s the whole foundation. You deliver on what you promised.”

Woiceshyn, who has written a book, How to be Profitable and Moral: A Rational Egoist Approach to Business, challenges her students to think about the kind of leader they aspire to be. “I tell students, virtues are always choices," she says. "You need to assess for yourself the right set of virtues for you. These virtues are tools you can use to achieve long-term profitability and sustainability.”

In their paper, Leadership Virtues Exposed: Ethical Leadership Lessons from Leading in Rock Climbing, the pair point to six essential virtues: rationality, honesty, independence, integrity, justice and pride. “In rock climbing, you are exposed,” says Bischak. “That is why rationality is so important. Facts come first – on the rock face, and in business,” Woiceshyn points out.

“On the rock face, there is nowhere to hide."

Leadership virtues exposed

Bischak suggests virtues should guide every decision – for leaders and for teams. “If your goal is to make the summit, no matter what, your leadership decisions will be different than if your goal is to conduct yourself in a way you will be proud to talk about afterwards.”

She remembers reading a story about a climber who just met someone, arranged to go on a climb with him, and after driving three hours to the rock face, she realized she did not want to climb with him after all. “Her antennas were up. The other person did not have those virtues she wanted at the other end of the rope,” Bischak laughs.

Woiceshyn adds, “The relationship part is important in rock climbing, and in business. Business is fundamentally a social activity. You are producing material values, goods, and services to trade. You have customers, employees, and shareholders – all those relationships.”

Things to remember:

  • To lead is to take risks in climbing and business. Great risks can foster great rewards. As Babe Ruth once said, “never let the fear of striking out get in your way”.
  • In rock climbing, a good leader works to ensure the whole team has a shared vision, experience, training and understands the risks.
  • Team members learn by observing the leader.
  • The first part of leadership – in business and in rock climbing – is leading yourself.

 

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