High Altitude Leadership: What the World’s Most Forbidding Peaks Teach Us About Success

High Altitude Leadership, published late last year, seems to have hit the market at precisely the right moment.  Drawing on observations made during mountaineering expeditions (including Mount Everest ascents), the authors identify eight dangers that climbers and business leaders face.  Although the observations are phrased in business terms, they’re certainly applicable to legal practice as well.


  1. Fear of Death You might understand immediately why a mountain climber would fear death and how that fear could create paralysis and, ultimately, cause exactly the feared result.  In business (and in the practice of law), fear stops action. To avoid falling victim to this danger, accept the prospect of failure and act anyway.  I envision this as the action that allowed some large law firms to avoid the worst of the recent recession by seeing the problems early and moving to mitigate those circumstances rather than becoming paralyzed by the fear of what might happen.
  1. Selfishness  The authors analogize business selfishness to the precarious situation created when a climber eager to make an ascent ignores warning of danger and by doing so threatens the safety of an entire team.  In business terms, the authors explain that selfishness produces DUD behavior: Dangerous, Unproductive, and Dysfunctional. The solution? Crafting a compelling saga that speaks to purpose and mission and creates the passion that will overcome selfishness.
  1. Tool Seduction Tools – whether ropes and oxygen to assist in mountain climbing or leadership and business development systems – are important.  Overreliance on tools, however, produces people without the foundational skills necessary to survive. When I was a child, my parents made sure I could tell time with an analog watch before permitting me to wear a digital watch.  The principle here is similar, as is the solution: learn the underlying skill and how to use the tools wisely.
  1. Arrogance Although more 13,000 people have attempted Mount Everest, 73% failed to reach the summit and 208 died in the process.  Warner and Schmincke claim that arrogance always lurks behind failure, showing up in poor planning, poor execution, or the belief that ordinary rules are inapplicable.  Humility tempers the ego and avoids failure.  Where have you observed arrogance vs. humility in the legal field over the last couple of years?
  1. Lone Heroism Those who refuse needed help, who really believe that “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” are suffering from lone heroism.  Warner recounts the story of a climber who desperately wants to make an ascent the purist way, without oxygen, even though his body was shutting down. In business, lone heroes refuse good advice and hamstring talented team members.  Developing partnership and allowing partners to take the lead when appropriate avoids lone hero syndrome.  (As a sidenote, lone heroism — which I call “lone ranger syndrome” — slows the progress of would-be rainmakers who refuse help and guidance.)
  1. Cowardice Just as fear of failure/death stops forward motion, cowardice keeps climbers and business leaders stuck in place.  They may unenthusiastically continue work on a project knowing it’s doomed, or they may fail to uncover a weak or arrogant member of the team because someone might criticize them.  The solution, of course, is developing a sense of bravery, which is encouraged by an atmosphere in which everyone is expected to speak the truth and to admit to problems as step one toward correcting them.
  1. Comfort The best climbers and the best leaders are comfortable being uncomfortable.  Sure, it’s easier to climb a mountain or to lead in rosy times. But strong leaders know how to persevere even in unfavorable circumstances – and they know that sometimes perseverance means stepping back when changed circumstances make a strategy infeasible.  Choosing to step into calculated risk may be uncomfortable, but it’s also how progress gets made.
  1. Gravity Even carefully laid plans sometimes fail due to erroneous assumptions, brand new obstacles, or others’ failure to adhere to commitments.  Bringing skill to climbing and to business will avoid many problems, but challenges are sometimes unavoidable. High altitude leaders recognize the role of luck: sometimes you can do everything right and fail anyway.  Just ask those who have suffered through the law firm layoffs of 2008-2009.


The analogy of mountain climbing is surprisingly applicable to business, as the authors note:

On big peaks, we tell clients that the first mistake they made was joining the expedition. They are now in an environment where things can go terribly wrong very quickly. If they are going to make it home alive, they have to be more disciplined, more giving and more humbled than ever before. Everyone has to scan the horizon. Everyone has to examine themselves and each other for signs of weakness. Everyone is responsible for their own safety and the safety of everyone else. They have to prevent the small mistakes from adding up to a catastrophe.

High Altitude Leadership is a compelling book with a strong business message.  We’ve all seen the pull that business places on the practice of law in recent months, and High Altitude Leadership will be helpful for lawyers who are seeing the business side of practice in a new light.