Family Business Leadership Lessons from the Top of the World.

There is perhaps no singular human feat that pushes the individual so close to the brink of survival as summiting one of the world’s highest peaks. Yet ask many family business leaders and they will likely tell you that leading a family business is often a similar survival experience. I recently had the pleasure of hearing David Breashears ( speak at the Family Firm Institute’s Annual conference in New York City. Remarkably, David had just come off K2 (the world’s second highest peak) in Pakistan five days earlier. Feeling somewhat physically weak and perhaps even more emotionally drained, David still had the ability to inspire and captivate, especially me.

While not an extreme climber myself, I’ve marveled at the many tales and books that exist on high altitude climbing and survival in the most remote reaches of our planet. While many in the audience seemed nonplussed at David’s accomplishments (countless “professionals” were busy punching their palm toys with their fingers), I sat in awe as he spun first hand tales of climbing the planet’s highest peaks and surviving unfathomable feats. He’s ascended Everest four times and is most known for leading the expedition that filmed the IMAX film on Everest.

David’s talk was couched in “Leadership in Extreme Situations.” David made every attempt to relate high altitude climbing to the family business context, and in this regard there are a number of eerie similarities. There was a strong parallel between spending countless days in close quarters with people that you may or may not have chosen to be with and with whom you will entrust your life to in numerous unforeseen scenarios. The most striking similarity however was David’s observation that what kills teams and plans is ultimately ego and selfishness.

The most critical element to successful mountaineering is planning. Consider attempting to climb the world’s highest mountain with 50-75 people, many of whom you do not even know, and then film that experience at the same time. The IMAX camera used on Everest weighed over 40 pounds; the tripod and head weighed an additional 75 pounds. When this was filmed in 1996, each roll of film weighed 10 pounds and lasted all of 90 seconds. In an environment where climbers are known to shed objects as small as a pencil to save on weight, imagine planning to haul all that equipment, feed all those people and still return home safely.

In climbing, as in family business, often violent storms arise. When I saw Breashears, he was still physically weak from having spent 40 days at the Base Camp of K2 waiting out the melting snows so he and his team could photograph glacier movement and retreat; an endeavor that he has been documenting over the last 20 years. The original plan was to spend 15 days there. Reflect for a moment on the resources, coordination and legalities that come into play when your project runs more than three times over the original plan. Always allow for “wiggle room” as David called it. In extreme situations, leaders implore their cohort to never lose site of the goal and to continue to take care of each other. Breashear’s team accomplished what they set out to do with the necessary photos and data collected on the glaciers of K2. David then trekked 30, 29 and 31 miles on successive days to make it back to NYC to deliver the keynote on time that evening.

The IMAX mission intercepted with that fateful summer on Everest when eight climbers lost their lives. The events that unfolded on the mountain are chronicled in harrowing detail in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air.” Within sight of the summit at the South Col, Breashears and his team noticed approximately 60 climbers and four teams making their way towards the pinnacle. Fearing this onslaught would jeopardize their own goal of filming the summit in its pristine beauty, Breashears ordered his crew to retreat to Base Camp to let the rush of “tourists” pass. While this may have struck a temporary blow to the morale of his team, Breashears reminded them of their commitment to the ultimate goal, and how momentum can often be a dangerous thing if not balanced from time to time with a good dose of reality.

The lasting and most important message that was shared that evening was the need for humility and respect. In extreme climbing, people die because they do not know their limits. While on Everest at the South Col just prior to the summit push, David was faced with having to tell one climber that she would have to turn back because of her deteriorating condition. Reaching the summit, many climbers fail to remember, is only half of the climb. Getting up the mountain is optional, while getting down is mandatory. During the IMAX expedition, the team was able to complete the mission and send back amazing footage of Everest that is still being viewed today. The ability to complete the task despite the hardships endured was tantamount to claiming a small moral victory amidst the devastation that had been witnessed.

The lessons that David shared continue to resonate for me when viewed through a family business and leadership lens. First, clearly state the goal and stick to it. Communicate that goal throughout the team incessantly to keep everyone moving in the same direction. Next, know your limits; how many succession plans are never written because the owner has no plans to leave or better yet, die? Momentum can be dangerous; often planning is a nonissue when business is thriving or people are young and healthy. Getting up the mountain is optional, getting down is mandatory; to this end I would argue that transitioning the business is ultimately more important than keeping the family in it. Too often the goal of preserving the family legacy outweighs the more important goal of business continuity. Finally, selfishness is what eventually kills teams and derails goals; humility and respect will take you further in your climb than arrogance and hubris. Asking a fellow climber to turn back within sight of the summit is akin to tackling those difficult family discussions which deal with critical decisions, family legacies and ultimately our own mortality.

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