Friday, August 22, 2008

Leadership: Theologian vs Practician

Below is an article that my good friend Dan Sims wrote on our most recent adventure to Kilimanjaro...a great read:

Having been an avid reader of leadership books since my college days, I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of this ‘conventional wisdom’. At the root of my dissatisfaction is a growing implication that ‘leaders’ are essentially smart, and ‘followers’ are thoughtless sheep waiting around to be led. In my experiences as an athlete, entrepreneur and father, I have found this to be completely untrue.

In reality, intelligence is shared amongst the group and, in any given situation; certain people bring more to the table than others. In fact, it could be argued that ‘following’ actually takes a higher degree of intelligence than leading most of the time. This is especially true on a team of overachievers who typically, in other circumstances, would stand out on their own. The ability to recognize strengths in others…and to understand when those strengths warrant a leadership role…is an exceptional trait to possess.

Writing about the ‘Art of Followship’ is not nearly as ‘sexy’ or as widely-accepted as promoting the Ten L’s of Leadership or the 8 Tenets of Great Leaders. However if higher understanding is truly our goal, then it is undeniable that the science of leadership is at least equally a discussion on the ‘art’ of being an informed follower. We all know the square-jawed face of the General valiantly leading his troops into battle or the pre-game eloquence of the gridiron coach, imploring his team to perform above their natural talent. While I would never argue that leaders require those traits, it is wholly irrational and na├»ve to think that people follow blindly.

I recently had the opportunity to join an expedition to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and witnessed the demonstration of both leadership and followship under extreme circumstances. Led by world-renowned mountain guide, Jeff Evans, our team of 15 climbers and 42 porters set out for the summit much like a traveling village. On the support side, porters had clearly defined roles ranging from cooking to equipment to trail support. On the climber side, we were a small microcosm of society representing folks from academia, IT, construction, finance, sales, real estate and multiple other industries. As could be imagined, we were an aggressive group who had trained (primarily individually) and sacrificed a great deal to make this adventure a successful one.

From the onset, I was immediately struck by the ability of our team to recognize that while each of us was perhaps an ‘expert’ in our own respective worlds; we were clearly out of our comfort zone. From my experience, it is usually at this point that several people will attempt to separate from the group and define themselves as ‘more’ competent than their teammates. These people are usually extremely insecure and it is this insecurity that undermines the group’s ability to identify and relate to the true leaders. In our case, no ‘posers’ identified themselves and all of our collective intelligence could focus on Jeff’s knowledge and experience and our collective bid to summit this great mountain.

Jeff, for his part, embodies many (if not all) of the traditionally-recognized qualities of a leader. He is experienced, confident, articulate and adept at building and maintaining rapport with many different people on many different levels. However Jeff is also skilled in the art of ‘followship’ and in my experiences with him ‘off the mountain’ he has displayed the unique ability to defer to others when he recognizes the limits to his own expertise. Having been on both sides of these types of situations with Jeff, I can’t tell you how much this trait in him is appreciated and respected.

As our climb progressed through the jungle and our team discovered the unique knowledge and skills that we possessed as a group, it was incredible to see the collective confidence growing. On the third day up the mountain, however, our team suffered a major blow as one of our strongest members severely injured his ankle. Tanzania, despite its physical beauty, is not a place that you want to get hurt. And the lava-rock side of Mt. Kilimanjaro is most definitely not an environment conducive to medical care. As our friend’s ankle swelled up to twice its size in just a few short minutes, it became evident that something drastic would need to be done.

As 57 sets of eyes focused squarely on Jeff, I remember thinking that this is where Theological Leaders get separated from Practical Leaders. What would Jeff do? I should also mention that Jeff is an Emergency Room Physician Assistant (PA-C), though as is typical when traveling to Africa, all of Jeff’s bags (including his medical equipment) had been lost by the airline. Extreme environment, extreme injury and no viable equipment.

If you have ever been part of a team, you know that the group actually takes on a singular life which is separate from any one individual. When our teammate got hurt, it somehow cast a shadow on our entire team and thoughts of doubt and vulnerability overtook our once-confident and well-oiled machine. Recognizing and understanding our psyche, Jeff immediately took control of the situation in a way that was collaborative and inclusive. Even when he did not need help, Jeff assigned tasks to various members of the team so that they could get busy contributing rather than lamenting our poor fortune. Crafting a full leg splint out of bedding, organizing a team of porters, coordinating an evacuation plan and ultimately instilling confidence in all of us, Jeff was being a leader. He was the leader not because he talked the loudest or because he had the most money. He was the leader because we chose him to lead based on careful consideration.

Ultimately, after 14 hours of being ‘piggy-backed’ down the mountain by four different porters, our friend reached a service road and was put in what can only be described as a human wheelbarrow where he was pushed the rest of the way. Jeff made the decision to stay with our team rather than go with our friend, but only after a restless night of internally debating where he was most needed. The simple fact that he debated all of the angles made whatever decision he would arrive at okay with all of us.

Three days later the entire rest of our team would stand on the top of the mountain watching the sun rise across the continent of Africa. It was a life-changing moment to say the least. But as I stood there considering all of the sacrifices my wife and kids had made to afford me this opportunity, I was struck by a statement that Jeff had made during one of the long hikes on a prior day. He said, “I have traveled all over the world and stood atop the highest summits in the world. But I have never learned one thing standing on any summit. All of my learning has occurred on the way up.”

A leader in all of my other endeavors…business, sports, family, etc…I was a follower on this adventure and learned more about myself than I could have possibly imagined.