Experience is not always relevant, some days it can actually hold you back.

What can you learn when you are alone in an extraordinary environment?

In 2013, during my first real conversation with my then boss, he asked me about my goals for the year, and as I felt I was well prepared, I could give him a succinct overview of what I was aiming to achieve that year. He acknowledged my goals with a short ‘That’s great, but what are your personal goals?’. That, I had not given any though, I had only focused on work. I sat there on that couch, looking for an appropriate response. After a pause, which may not have lasted more than two seconds I responded “I will climb Kilimanjaro this year”. My boss though that was a great idea and asked me how long that had been a goal. In all honesty I answered him “seconds”.

I truly had never considered it, and I do not know why I would have said that, but since the cat was out of the bag, I was committed. This was unlike me, I generally would have a well-considered response, but then again, that was always professionally. At that time, I truly think I would not have been able to give a well-considered response to that question, as my personal life was not something I took into much consideration at the time.

Now that I was committed, I decided to look into ways to climb. I found the Western Breach was the hardest ascend (closed to the public these days), this was the way to go. The whole experience from that first conversation to finally coming down the mountain took almost eleven months. I learned many lessons in the lead up, and learned three valuable lessons on my climb:

Lesson 1: Ability is circumstantial

I had ample time to prepare for the climb and I supplemented my normal exercise with specific climbing fitness. In my career to date, I had faced many physical and emotional challenges and had always performed well. I was confident and believed in my own abilities. I was fit, had learned to deal with sleep deprivation in the past, and enjoyed a mental and physical challenge. I felt prepared.

Then, with all my confidence and preparation I found myself in an environment where all my abilities were constantly tested. From day 3 onwards I had a headache, the altitude was having an effect. This headache, compounded by lack of sleep, resulted in true sleep deprivation. My physical fitness pushed me through, until… summit day, a 1,000-metre ascend. Not a walk, a mostly vertical climb on the Western Breach. This is when I discovered all my abilities were clearly circumstantial. Change the circumstances and one may just run out of abilities. I learned all my previous challenges did not prepare me for what happened that day. To make matters worse, the top had just received a thick layer of fresh snow. I summitted, but it was not based on my abilities, I had left those behind halfway through the summit day. Stubbornness was what got me to the top, I had changed my mindset from ‘succeeding’ to ‘not failing’.

The lesson from that day was clear: ability is circumstantial. It helped me change my approach on leading my teams. I no longer just expected the same level of performance from my teams, especially not in changing circumstances. Performance is circumstantial, and acknowledging changes in or around my teams helped me to understand how I could help them to continue to perform. Especially well-performing teams are often blindsided to the impact of changing circumstances. They often rely too heavily on their own abilities, based on past performance. This lesson helped me make a paradigm shift in evaluating with my leaders. We started to focus on our successes and understanding why we were successful, instead of focusing on what went wrong and we needed to fix.

Takeaway: if you cannot clearly specify why you are a high-performing team, you are not a high-performing team. You just have been lucky, like I had been, until that summit day.

Lesson 2: Achieving together is achieving better

Yesterday I shared, halfway through the summit day I changed my mindset from ‘succeeding’ to ‘not failing’. This contributed to my struggle up the mountain. I now realise ‘not failing’ is a negative emotion, which sucks energy from you, where the prospect of ‘succeeding’ gives us energy.

I climbed and summited alone, with my guide that is. I decided to carry all my equipment myself and did not need a porter to carry my gear. My guide believed I was crazy (his words, not mine), but we kept our party small. We brought nothing but the essentials, which made us stand out on the first two days between the large groups who often had twice the number of porters to climbers.

Initially, it seemed an exciting idea to do it alone, now I know it was probably the biggest mistake I made. The lesson I learned from this adventure is that achieving together is achieving better. I found this out in two ways.

  1. If I had had a friend with me, we would have been each other’s support. I do not believe we would have ever changed our mindset from ‘succeeding’ to ‘not failing’. We would have kept each other focused. Alone it is easy to feel the pain and focus on it.
  2. Summiting was an achievement, especially in the way I summited. I always look back on this moment with mixed emotions, always ending with the regret I did not have someone to share the journey and the moment with. Even though I summited with my guide, it is hard to speak of ‘we’, it was not a joined effort. We had different objectives, I wanted to do something amazing, he wanted to get us down as quickly as possible, get paid, and get back to his family: It was his 302nd summit.

Takeaway: the celebration of achieving a milestone may just be in a moment. The way you look back on how you have achieved it and the impact it has on your development is permanent.

Lesson 3: There is beauty in accepting help

On top of the summit, sneering wind and literally no one in sight. We were the only two on top of the mountain, it was beautiful. Then came the descent, we were always going to take the walk-up route down. It was a significantly easier way, no climbing, just walking. This route makes Kilimanjaro a walk-up-mountain. Nevertheless, I was depleted and the walk down seemed just as hard as the climb up.

One more night we would be on the mountain, we just needed to get down to the camp. My guide kept telling me we were not far off, and every time we turned a corner, I hoped to see some lights as the daylight was fading. Not until it was practically dark, I saw a camp fire in the distance. I couldn’t get there quick enough, but it seemed every step I took, took we further away. Then, out of nowhere a gentleman approached, he grabbed my left wrist, flung it over his shoulder, put his right arm around me, under my backpack. I had not seen him before, I looked at him; he was significantly shorter than I am, and he would have been twice my age. The man only said ‘you can lean on me young man; we are almost there’.

He was right, it may only have been a hundred meters, but it felt like a hundred kilometres. I would have made it without his help, and I would have crashed at the campsite. With his help, I made it, and he helped me sit down and get my burden off. This man did not ask me if I needed help, he saw I needed it and took action. I ‘accepted’ his help (even though I may not have had a choice in the matter) at a time I may not have needed it the most. That time was earlier that day, when I had slid down the mountain and needed to find my way back up to the track.

This man, who I do not know, and who disappeared before I could thank him, is embossed in my memory. This man taught me a lesson I will never forget; accepting help is part of growing. Others may see you need it, it is OK to rely on others every now and then. The strong need help, just like the weak. Intelligent people need help just like unintelligent people. The difference is, only intelligent people recognise accepting help will make them better and do not only accept it, they look for it.

Takeaway: once you drop your reservations, you may just realise you get much further when you seek the right help. Only a fool tries to get through life unassisted.

Read the Kilimanjaro story in part 1 of

‘Privilege of Leadership’.

Interested in the book? Click on the image to right and download your copy.

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