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Leadership lessons from mountain climbing – part 1

January 9, 2019

Lalit Mishra   

Associate Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, Internet of Things (Business Unit), Tata Communications

I’m fortunate to have interests outside of work that help keep me going professionally too. Mountaineering is one that pushes my limits to the extreme. While I’ve been pursuing this sport for a few years now, it’s only recently that I’ve started to appreciate how it has not only made me more resilient in life, but also contributed to my growth as a corporate leader along the way.

Resilience, endurance, agility, flexibility, survival instinct, perseverance – and a positive attitude – these and many more have become leadership buzzwords and corporate mantras. Yet, somewhere along the way, the constant repetition has made them a blind spot – something we don’t even pause to think about day to day. But when faced with extreme circumstances, when each particle of your being is ready to give up – these attributes take on a whole new perspective.

During my last summit to Kang Yatse II in 2018, I had to dig deep for each of those attributes.

At 6,250 metres, the Kang Yatse II, or KYII for short, has been one of my most challenging expeditions – one that has tested every physical, emotional and mental limit I ever believed I had. A tough technical climb over 12 days in extremely harsh, snowy and stormy conditions, it’s an expedition that made me focus everything I had towards the task at hand.

Here’s my take on some the most important lessons learnt along the way – most that will stay with me long after the euphoria of the summit has worn off.

Keep the end goal in perspective and never lose focus

When faced with extreme circumstances, it’s easy to lose focus. Exhaustion – the kind one has never faced before – and hallucinations – when your mind starts to play tricks on your already bone-tired body – make it easy to start making excuses for why it’s OK to give up. At that point, bringing back the ‘why’ of the ‘what you are trying to achieve’ helps renew flagging confidence and energy.

The night before the summit was one such night, with every possible legitimate reason (read excuse!) to give up. I chose instead to focus on what I had set out to do. A cloudburst, less than favourable circumstances for climbing the summit… Yet, not overthinking and instead focusing on what I needed to do at that moment ensured there was no conflict in my mind when the time arrived to finally make the last mile.

Focus on influencing the outcomes you can control and trust the leader you’ve chosen to follow

Sleep is paramount to our well-being and ability to function, more so when the going is tough. Sleep at extreme altitudes is a luxury, especially as you go higher, and when you need it the most. As you inch closer to the summit, and when reserves of energy are at the lowest and exhaustion is almost overwhelming – sleep is what you need to recharge. But you just don’t get it.

From my earlier experiences, I conditioned my body and mind to function on less sleep. I also learned to conserve my limited resources of energy. Instead on stressing about the daunting task ahead and losing heart, I learned to take one step at a time and focusing on getting to the next milestone. I ensured I ate well to keep my energy reserves up, slept without distractions for the limited time I had, and left critical decision making to the expedition leader – ensuring my energy was focused entirely on the task at hand.

On reflection, I learnt a valuable lesson here – focus on influencing outcomes you can control and trust the leader you’ve chosen to follow. When the going gets tough, you will need every ounce of energy to tap into and that may well be the difference between success and failure.

In part two of this blog I will be looking at how my mountain climbing experiences have taught me to adapt and deal with challenging situations in my professional life too.


For more leadership lessons take a look at our previous series with our CEO Vinod Kumar and Toto Wolff of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport F1 team.