Climbing a mountain is seen as one of the most fulfilling tasks a person can complete. From an increase in personal fitness to pushing physical and mental boundaries, there are a number of benefits afforded to those bold enough to brave the slopes. 

Some choose to climb as part of a personal challenge or journey of discovery, while others pledge to do so in aid of charity or to help others. Whatever the reason, almost everybody who has climbed a mountain will have taken something from the experience. 

One person for whom this is true is The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania’s Centre For Leadership and Change Management Senior Fellow Dr Chris Maxwell. Dr Maxwell has spent the past decade climbing mountains and trekking with top guides around the world, acquiring information and details for his new book Lead Like a Guide: How World-Class Mountain Guides Inspire Us to Be Better Leaders. 

The book details the leadership strengths of world-class mountain guides and shows how developing and applying the highlighted principles can help everybody to reach for the highest summits in work and in life. Dr Maxwell said the idea for the book came from the many expeditions he organised for students of the undergraduate business degree at the Wharton School. 

“We wanted the students to spread the experience of learning about leadership by doing rather than just by reading or listening,” he told Leader. 

On these expeditions, Dr Maxwell found a number of the guides displayed a variety of key leadership strengths, which could be perfectly transferred to other situations, including the boardroom. Following a decade of research, he found there were six leadership strengths that kept recurring among the guides. 

“In writing the book, I interviewed about 20 internationally renowned mountain guides and found they all started saying the same things,” Dr Maxwell said. 

Demonstrating social intelligence, adopting a flexible leadership style, empowering others, facilitating the development of trust, managing risk in an environment of uncertainty and seeing the big picture were the six strengths Dr Maxwell identified. “I would say, of the six, social intelligence is definitely the most important characteristic to have, but naturally, the more of these leadership strengths a guide or leader can possess, the better they will be,” Dr Maxwell said. “In an ideal world they will have all six, but not everybody can be that perfect.” 

Social intelligence, for Dr Maxwell, is more involved than emotional intelligence, which he said was primarily about being aware of yourself and others around you. Social intelligence requires intimacy and trust in terms of building a positive relationship that will stay positive even if things go wrong. 

“You want people to be able to listen to you because you’ve built a relationship with them based on being socially intelligent, you know their strengths and weaknesses and you are able to use them in the best possible way,” he said. Going beyond the six strengths Beyond the six strengths Dr Maxwell focuses on in his book, he highlights the importance of communication, noting it is a key facet of successful leadership. “Some people have to work hard to learn how to communicate in a way that keeps the conversation open,” he said. 

“It can be learned and is invaluable to successful leaders.” Being open to new experiences is another strength Dr Maxwell believes is key, but he admits this can be seen as more of an inborn trait and harder to learn than some of the other strengths. This is another area where the mountain guides are useful, as they have formulated a way to help develop this skill. Usually on thinking about being guided, the expectation is that it will happen from the front, but some of the best mountain guides in the world employ the skill of leading from behind. 

The reasoning is teaching people to be open to uncertainty and allowing them to manage complex situations. “The guides are willing to let you take the risk, willing to let you deal with uncertainty and the ambiguity, but they’re there for safety. It’s a great opportunity to deal with coping mechanisms,” Dr Maxwell said. Guiding and teaching For Dr Maxwell, the true marker of a good leader is one who teaches and guides others on how to take over in the role of leader when the time comes. 

Teaching others while leading them ensures the successful continuation of the company well into the future. One of the best ways to do this is to give people challenging assignments they may not be fully prepared for because it teaches them to be strategic with problem solving. 

“The manager has to be socially intelligent enough to let that person struggle and not solve all their problems,” Dr Maxwell said. “It’s the responsibility of the person in charge of the department to allow people to have this opportunity.” 

Of all of the key leadership strengths and lessons Dr Maxwell has learnt from mountain guides, he treasures one lesson above all others. It is something that can be applied to everyday life and he believes will make everybody better leaders and better people as a result. 

“It’s the journey that matters, not the summit,” Dr Maxwell said. “If we cannot appreciate the journey, then really we have missed the most important part.”

Chris Thurmott is a Senior Journalist for The West Australian and he writes for a variety of different publications including Leader and National Mining Chronicle.