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6 Tips for Leading People As If Their Lives Depend on You

Using techniques developed over years of experience as a mountain climbing guide, Art Mooney can make anyone feel comfortable following him.
Art Mooney, the founder of New Hampshire-based Mooney Mountain Guides [left], leads a group of physically challenged climbers to the summit of Mt. Washington every year.
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I've had the distinct pleasure of learning how to ice, rock, and alpine climb from one of our country's best-known and most highly respected mountain guides, Art Mooney. I've climbed with Art for seven years, and successfully reached peaks from Nevada to Maine.

As I learned more and more from Art, I've applied many of his techniques to my own business. In the process, I have become a better leader.

After he guided me recently to the summit of Mt. Washington and back for the 13th time--no mean feat considering Mt. Washington is one of the most dangerous peaks in the world--I decided to ask Art what makes him such a nonpareil leader. Trust me: some, if not most, of his tips, will apply to you, no matter your business.

1. Lead by example

Art's not one of those leaders who hands over the reins to minions and tells them to take clients up and down the peak. He personally leads every climb to which he commits. That means he suffers the same spills, the same intense weather, and the same exhilaration as his clients. That's a big deal in the climbing world.

I've booked trips to Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, and the Andes, to name just a few, and watched as the senior guide turned over the lead to a far less experienced associate.

I, too, try to lead by example. One example: In my business, it's not enough to be active in social media. You need to be seen as a thought leader. That's a hackneyed term that means very little nowadays, but true thought leaders in my industry not only are prolific writers, they also take a very definite point of view on a given subject. One of my personal frustrations is seeing so few of my peers pen articles, much less posit a unique view.

2. Build trust

Art has a well-defined strategy when it comes to building trust with a new climbing client. First, he determines their abilities, any medical problems, and physical challenges. Next he asks what their personal goals are for the day's activities. Only then will he draw upon his vast knowledge to select the precise climb that he believes will challenge the new client, assure they experience the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual benefits of climbing, and most importantly, end their day smiling from ear to ear.

That attention to the climber's needs and preferences is what begins building trust. Art began his New Hampton, New Hampshire-based business in 1990, and says 50 percent of his income is derived from repeat (read: happy) climbing clients.

I'd like to tell you I spend even a fraction of the time Art does getting to know my clients before I begin working with them. But by listening to Art as he works with a new client, I've begun asking prospects such questions as:

  • What will success look like for you?
  • What motivated you/your firm to begin a PR program now?
  • What obstacles, challenges, skeletons in the closet, or other impediments to success should I know about before we begin?
  • Aside from driving qualified sales leads to your website, what else will make you happy?

3. Think ahead

Like any entrepreneur, Art thinks long and hard about who might eventually succeed him at the helm of MMG. And like many of us, he's made some great picks, as well as a few turkeys. One mentee Art nurtured for years ended up leaving to start his own business. The exact same thing has happened to me.

So Art says when he trains young guides for the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) or works with potential MMG employees, he looks for the following leadership characteristics:

  • Does the wannabe leader have a real passion for climbing? Or is he a know-it-all anxious to strut his stuff at 14,000 feet in front of other young guides?

I look for similar qualities. I want lifelong learners who don't crave the spotlight for their individual accomplishments, but rather respect the craft of PR and are always anxious to learn.

  • Does the wannabe possess the emotional strength to lead a client in potentially life-threatening circumstances?

This, Art says, is what helps make a great climbing guide great. Art must keep his cool when the weather takes a sudden turn for the worse and thunderstorms or whiteout conditions appear literally out of the blue. Rather than focus on his comfort, Art checks with his clients to assure they're warm enough, have the strength to continue, and are emotionally ready to battle a driving snowstorm high up on a summit cone. (Trust me: That can be a bitch.)

While we won't mention names, Art and I both know guides who have gotten lost leading groups up treacherous passes at night. We also know a guide who led my son, Chris, and me deep into a crevasse-filled ice field in the Alps, stopped short, and screamed, "Oh, shit! I'm lost!" That did not exactly inspire confidence.

I have the same kind of leadership barometer with my middle managers at Peppercomm. While they don't have to battle fierce winds or blistering sun (except when our HVAC system misfires), they do have to manage difficult clients, uninterested media, and challenging workplace issues.

If I see one of my people suffer a meltdown (verbally or in written form), I know immediately that he or she doesn't have what it takes to rise to the top. They may remain a valued middle-level employee, but they can forget about being groomed for the corner office.

If there's one quality a top mountain guide and a successful entrepreneur must possess, it's this: grace under pressure. Lose your cool in my business, and you'll lose a client. Lose it in Art's world, and someone may lose his life.

4. Have a thirst for information

Art will never plan a climbing trip without first checking with other guides, the local park service employees, weather reports, and other sources of information.
As a guide who has attracted such top sponsors as Mammut and Five Ten, he also must stay on top of the latest, greatest climbing technology (as well as reports of any mishaps or fatalities). In other words, he's a news junkie. That enables him to provide the safest, most enjoyable experiences possible.

I, too, am a news junkie. And, if there's a person, place, or thing (think: software) that's revolutionizing how businesses market themselves, I have to know about it. So I'll ask my own inner circle what I need to learn in order to be ready to counsel a client who's smitten with the latest shiny new object.

5. Use SERF

Art spends a good deal of time training and certifying other guides on behalf of the AMGA. Typically, these are intense two-week workshops in which Mooney-wannabes must demonstrate they have all the skills necessary to lead others into the heavens.

Art's devised a program he calls SERF. It's an acronym that stands for:

- SAFETY: Art and his guides need to know when to say when. If weather or other conditions turn ugly, guides need to pull the plug on the climb and turn around. Many guides and their clients have died because they ignored basic safety rules (remember, for example, Into Thin Air).
- EDUCATION: You would not believe how many pieces of new mountain hardware, clothing, boots, and climbing gear guides need to know about. They also need to know which ones to use in what conditions. I won't bore you with the types of knots they need to tie and the anchors they need to build, but each one has to be 100 percent perfect. If a guide uses the wrong rope at 12,000 feet on a sheer cliff, no one on that climbing team will ever read another Inc. column.
- REWARDS: This isn't about monetary rewards since few mountain climbers become millionaires. Rather, Art talks about the rewards that come with a career that calls for working outdoors, pursuing one's personal passion to become the best guide possible, and most importantly, enjoying the rewards of watching clients become better, more confident climbers. Art shares his clients' jubilation when they reach new milestones.
- FUN: Climbing may be the hardest and, at times, the most painful physical exercise I've ever endured. But I adore it for two key reasons:

  • Climbers pull for one another to succeed. There is no competition to see who can climb the fastest, toughest route.
  • I am not a religious person. But I've yet to find any legal pastime that comes close to matching the spiritual, emotional, physical, or mental high of climbing. I wouldn't call it fun, Art. I'd call it a blast. Which would change his acronym to SERB.

6. Trust your gut

There's no doubt that Art is a gifted, natural leader. So I asked him what attributes he would use to describe the ideal leader. Here's what he said (see how many apply to you):

  • Having the ability to make tough decisions in a split second.
  • Going with your gut instincts. Great leaders have an intuition that tells them what to do (or not to do). Once you've made a decision, don't change it. The mountain's not going anywhere. If your gut tells you today is not the day, postpone the climb. How many times have you pitched a piece of business, hired an employee, or made a business decision that you knew might be wrong? I sure have. I never realized "my mountain wasn't going anywhere" and that seemingly critical decisions can wait.
  • Laughing at yourself. Art's the first one to laugh out loud if he makes a rookie mistake (in a safe environment, of course). He also readily engages in banter with his fellow guides and clients alike. I think self-deprecating humor is a game-changer for leaders. Too many CEOs (especially in my field) think they're curing cancer, ending world hunger, or preventing war. They're not. They need to collectively chill out and begin enjoying life.

One final observation on Art Mooney. It comes from a member of his team of guides, Alex Teixeira. Alex says Art's leadership magic is his ability to allow his employees to make mistakes, discuss those mistakes in a Socratic method (e.g. "What sort of knot might have made more sense in that situation?"), and allow his juniors to reflect on what he's just taught them. "That's incredibly empowering," said Teixeira. "We not only know we've just learned something but we know that we've learned a new way to teach others what Art just taught us. How many leaders make that sort of impact?"

I respect leaders like Art whose livelihoods depend on the health and safety of others (especially my own). Few of us make life-and-death decisions on a daily basis. But the leadership lessons from a gifted leader like Art can vastly improve your performance. They may not put you on the top of Mt. Everest, but I'll bet if you apply just a few of them, you'll find yourself reaching the summit of some leadership or career goal you'd always thought was out of reach.

 

IMAGE: Courtesy Subject
Last updated: May 12, 2014

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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