What Rock Climbing Can Teach Us About Leadership
Humans are only born with two innate fears – a fear of loud noises and a fear of falling. Despite the latter, the sport of rock climbing has become increasingly popular around the globe, especially after its Olympic debut in the summer of 2021.
Although you would think there is little to be learned from a sport where you dangle from a rope high above the ground, clinging to tiny holds fighting the insurmountable and instinctual fear of falling, there is, in fact, a great deal that rock climbing can teach us about leadership.
Trust yourself, trust your team, trust your gear.
Climbing anything more than a few meters requires an enormous amount of trust – trust that your belay partner will catch you, trust that the rock you are climbing on will not break, and trust that whoever bolted the line knew what they were doing. But most importantly, trust that you possess the strength, skill, and knowledge to make it up the wall.
Within an organization, leaders must develop trust within their teams so that individuals are not afraid to take smart risks or push their limits as they know if they ‘fall,’ their leaders will be there to catch them. The opposite is also true – leaders need to trust that if they ‘fall’, their team has the knowledge, skills, and judgement to stop them before they hit the ground. Through embedding trust within the workplace, leaders can develop an environment where teammates feel empowered and realize their own capabilities and power, allowing them, in turn, to trust in themselves, uncover their potential, and climb to new heights.
Communicate like your life depends on it.
As you would expect, communication is an integral part of rock climbing. Depending on the type of climbing you are doing, even a small miscommunication can result in a fall, serious injury, or even death. Therefore, when climbing, especially with a new partner, it is imperative to set time aside before you even get on the wall to ensure you understand how you will communicate and clarify any questions before climbing.
Although the consequences of miscommunications for most leaders are not as dire as those encountered when rock climbing, being able to articulate your thoughts and expectations clearly is a crucial part of being a good leader. To communicate effectively, leaders must be purposeful with words and choose phrases to avoid ambiguity and provide time for their team to ask for clarity – especially before starting a new project or if there are significant consequences of miscommunication. By demonstrating excellent communication skills, leaders can enhance team function and productivity through setting clear expectations, avoiding confusion, and reducing mistakes.
You control your emotions, or your emotions control you.
When rock climbing – even if you have been climbing for years, fear and anxiety tend to creep in when you least expect them. Given the urgency of making the next move, rock climbers need to acknowledge their emotions, keep them in check, and move on in one fell swoop. If a climber succumbs to their emotions while on the wall, it will inevitably result in them losing their grip and falling.
Leaders work in emotionally challenging environments where they must make pivotal, high-stakes decisions and navigate difficult situations with clients and team members. Part of being an effective leader is recognizing your emotions and finding ways to manage them, especially before making big decisions. Although it may feel vulnerable or even uncomfortable to confront your emotions and develop the skills to control them, there are clear benefits for leaders who have mastered the art of emotional regulation. Practicing self-awareness and self-regulation can help improve communication and promote better goal-directed decision-making, resulting in improved leadership and overall team outcomes.
Don’t be afraid to fall.
If you are pushing your limits while tied to a rope, just as much time is spent falling as it is climbing. Given the sheer volume of time climbers spend slipping from their fingertips, rather than viewing falling as a failure – climbers perceive falling as an opportunity to learn from past missteps, grow stronger, and build resilience. A rock climber can only uncover their true potential if they are climbing at a grade where falling is almost inevitable, but their strength, skill, and perseverance get them to the top of the wall.
Experiencing failure and developing a culture where setbacks are accepted and encouraged may sound like a backward way to improve leadership function and team dynamics. However, constantly trying to avoid failure as a leader may mean you miss out on taking risks needed to succeed. By experiencing failure, leaders can better understand who they are, build resilience, develop a growth mindset, and learn to take smart risks. By reframing the way failure is perceived within teams – leaders can give individuals the space to make mistakes, take falls and recognize their potential.
Although you may not be keen on tying into a rope and climbing up a wall anytime soon, we encourage you to embrace the leadership lessons from rock climbing. Embrace the importance of reciprocal trust, communicate like your life depends on it, keep your emotions in check, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to fall!
For teams who are physically able, we encourage you to try rock climbing with your colleagues at an indoor gym. Not only will it improve your mood and well-being, but it will also enhance team cohesion by improving your communication, trust, and respect for one another.
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