False Summits

False Summits

The South Sister mountain in southern Oregon has several false summits.  They occur when you hike up a steep ridge and get to the top only to find the next uphill section in front of you.  You get excited to reach the top, and then your hopes deflate when you see over the crest.

I experienced them first hand on my climb, including one right at the top.  After a particularly grueling ascent, this was a tough blow.  I was ready to be done but there was more ahead.  And high winds, cloud and sub-zero windchill didn’t help.  Once we got to the top, it was worth it, in spite of the weather.

Leadership false summits

As I descended from the summit, I realized there are a lot of similarities in leadership.  The concept of false summits applies to both.  Teams start out to achieve a goal and feel they are making progress.  The going gets tough, interest declines and they settle for lowest acceptable result.  In my language, this is their false summit.  Rather looking over the crest, they get close to it, declare victory and move on to the next project.  The sad thing is they are missing out on the real victory.  Getting to the true top and being met with the equivalent of a fabulous view, and the deep sense of achievement.

So why do we settle for the first summit, rather than going to the top?  The most common reason I sense is being overwhelmed with work.  Their workload prevents more focused attention.  Another reason is simply not knowing there is more ahead.  If we are blind, there is much we cannot see.  There are many other reasons.  Perhaps the more important question is what can we do to give ourselves a better chance of reaching the top?

How can we reach the top?

Several analogies come to mind:

  • Get a guide, someone who has been there before who can explain what to expect.  There are many experts who are willing to act as mentors.
  • Get a map.  There is a surprising amount of literature available, as well as videos and other media.  There is a good chance someone has done something similar and shared their experience.
  • Send out a scout.  Have a member of the team focus on what’s ahead rather than do current stage work.
  • Keep you head up above the horizon.  It is very easy to keep our heads down focused on the next step.  Stop from time to time and see wants ahead on the horizon.

Is your team achieving results in line with its potential or settling for false summits?