In this article, Eileen McDargh shares lessons for resilient leaders.
One of Carl Jung’s favorite words was “synchronicity,” that unexplainable convergence of unplanned events that offer insights and opportunities. When I agreed to join a trekking expedition through two remote provinces of the Indian Himalayas, I had no way of knowing that this adventure would coincide with the publication of my latest book, Gifts from the Mountain- Simple Truths for Life’s Complexities. Ah, synchronicity!
One of the benefits of being a continual learner is that we are constantly overtaken by ah-hah moments that serve to not only whack us on the side of the head, but also hold lessons that can have universal application for anyone in leadership. The following are but some of the principles gleaned as our group drove along the highest roads in the world and wound up in the regions of Lahual and Spiti which are often closed to the outside world for seven frozen months. They come from trekking with tribesmen herding sheep and goats at elevations up to 16,000 feet and from crossing white water rivers on foot and encountering the Dalia Lama in a remote monastery near the China/Tibet border.
Watch for patterns. Different trees grow at different elevations.
The apple trees of the Kulu Valley could no more have survived at Rohtang Pass then a trout could swim at the North Pole. The natural world allows for adaptation, but only to a point. As leaders, we must know where we belong, what adaptations we can make and then how to help those around us find the best match for their growth and abilities.
Ankit Sood, our wise guide, demonstrated this principle during the trek. As the journey became more difficult, he voiced his concern in such a way that allowed all of us to gracefully examine our skill levels. Four of our party self-selected to not continue when the trekking became more difficult and demanding on both a physical and emotional level. That’s wisdom and courage on display. Had they continued, it might have caused harm to themselves as well as to the rest of the group. Ankit, as our leader, paved the way for that decision yet was also prepared to take them to a lower elevation had they insisted on continuing. A leader gives the follower a chance to evaluate his own performance but is also prepared to make the difficult decision of transferring or terminating an employee. When an employee is not able to do the job at hand, it damages the morale and the performance of a team if that employee is left to struggle in work that does not match competency or innate potential.
Expect the unexpected and deal with it.
Change is one thing. The unexpected adversity or opportunity is something else. Great leaders live in the present moment and make decisions based upon what is before them.. As we climbed higher into Spiti, the Himalayan cold semi-desert region that has been described as one of the highest, most remote and inhospitable places on the planet, Ankit learned that the Dalia Lama would be teaching at a monastery in the village of Nako. To venture to Nako meant changing plans on a dime, jumping through mounds of bureaucratic paperwork, and going through time-consuming checkpoints. However, the chance to see a world leader in a special setting was an unexpected opportunity not to be missed.
The same is true in the business world. Had 3M ignored an engineer’s idea that a less-than-sticky glue could be useful, the world would never have known Post-It-Notes(tm). Had Larry Page and Sergey Brin not paid attention to the unexpected response to their simple search engine methodology, the word “Google” would not have become a common word in our vocabulary. The more critical the effort, the more teamwork is required.
The rivers of the western Himalayas cascade from melting glaciers. At night, when the glaciers freeze, water level is reduced. The timing of a crossing is critical as water rises along with the sun. Rocks and debris swirl into tumultuous rapids. Crossing alone can be suicidal. We created a human chain, grasping each other by wrists (not hands) and alternated smaller team members with larger ones. We succeeded, cold and battered, but safe.
How often do we encounter the leader or employee who insists on “going it alone” in a critical situation? To ask for help is perceived as a weakness. Yet, it is the strength of collective brains and maybe even brawn that can produce a better result. Equally important is knowing how to optimize the varying strengths of team members for the best results. The adage of “strength in numbers” bears consideration.
Action is the antidote for anxiety.
We made it in time to cross the dangerous river that had already claimed six lives, but other members of our expedition crew were not so lucky. Rounding up packhorses had slowed their pace. In horror we watched these men attempt three times to cross, spinning against rapids and almost drowning. There was no choice but to stay on the granite rocks and wait until early morning.
I could see the anxiety in the eyes of our leader. While we hiked ahead to make camp, he devised a plan. With another team member, he filled a waterproof barrel with food, warmer clothes and a small tent. He hurled a rope to the stranded crew and together they created a pulley system for retrieving the barrel. While everyone was still concerned, taking action provided some comfort. Hand wringing never accomplishes anything. Action gives a level of control over what, at face valuable, might seem uncontrollable. A leader helps people take that action.
Everyone deserves to be welcomed home.
When the stranded crew appeared over the horizon at daybreak, we cheered, sang and welcomed them “home.” Their faces glowed with a sense that we weren’t just customers to serve, managers to follow, but rather individuals who cared for their well being. They redoubled their efforts to work for us in the days that followed. There’s universality in wanting to be welcomed and cheered.
Whether in the remote regions of India or the meeting rooms of Wall Street, employees deserve to feel that someone has seen their effort, their hard work and their long hours. The degree of engagement and retention might increase exponentially if leaders welcomed them “home.”
Gratitude transcends latitudes
Regardless of nationality or geography, humans everywhere respond to expressions of gratitude. Not only do we seek a place where we are welcomed, but our spirits rise when others let us know that we matter. The more personal the expression, the deeper is the human connection.
While it is customary to pool monies and give a bonus to the trekking crew, our expedition wanted to extend a more intimate thank-you. After all, these men had put our well being ahead of their own. They paid attention to our personal needs, even found a way to bake a cake at 15,000 feet when they discovered that two of us had birthdays.
Our solution was to gift them with personal items we knew could be used by themselves or their families. My new Timberland boots, thermal jacket and ski hat went into the box along with my husband’s favorite space-aged parka. Our party left gloves, socks, medicines, thermals, and even unopened bags of trail mix and jerky brought from home. We gave money to have everything cleaned and restored if need be.
When gratitude comes from the heart, is personal, unexpected and out-of-the-ordinary, amazing linkages are created. The gifts demonstrated that we had observed their life, their needs, and responded appropriately. Spontaneous appreciation that recognizes the uniqueness of an individual beats standardized reward programs any day.
As for our band of intrepid explorers, my expedition partners who were strangers until we gathered at Chicago O’Hare for the fifteen-hour flight to New Delhi, we’ll continue our relationships that were forged with shared experiences. You might say we have created a new company through collaboration, cooperation, and consideration. That’s not a bad final lesson to carry into our respective places of work.
For more on Eileen McDargh, visit her page.