Scaling the leadership mountain
Herta von Stiegel, co-author of The Mountain Within: Leadership Lessons and Inspiration for Your Climb to the Top (McGraw-Hill 2011), discusses values-driven leadership with Bruce Lloyd
Bruce Lloyd Could you summarise what your new book is about, and how you came to write it?
Herta von Stiegel (see image) It is essentially a leadership book about the lessons we learn as we climb to the top. It was inspired by a expedition I led of disabled and non-disabled individuals up Mount Kilimanjaro in 2008. Initially the impetus was to help a friend raise the profile of a charity (Enham) that does wonderful work supporting disabled people, but is not very well known. In developing this vision I felt there were two overarching principles that needed to be emphasised: One was that everyone is entitled to their dream, and the other is that we can do a lot more together than anyone of us can achieve individually.
In the end the expedition was an incredible success. We took seven disabled climbers up the mountain, 'buddied' with non-disabled climbers.
As well as the book, the expedition has been documented in an award-winning film of the same title. In leading this expedition I used leadership lessons that I had learned over the years, one of which was that, if you can lead volunteers, you can lead anyone anywhere. Leading volunteers is so much more challenging than leading in the normal business setting, where there are a wide variety of sticks and carrots. With volunteers, it is all about relating the intrinsic values of the mission with those of the individuals concerned.
The book has three aspects: First, there is the dramatic story of the two expeditions - the first ended in miserable failure, but it was followed by a second eight years later that was a resounding success. There are 16 chapters, each one covering a specific business application, together with a key lesson, such as "building the team". Finally, each chapter also contains a profile of a business or political leader, based on conversations I have had with them, whose views embody that particular lesson.
BL One dimension that you emphasise in the book is the critical role of values, a point you have just mentioned in the context of motivating volunteers. The priority you give to this issue is very different to many other books on leadership and many traditional corporate agendas.
HvS Very much so. A point I highlighted is that it is important for leaders to put the mission before their egos. The current crisis we have recently experienced, and are still experiencing, is not just a financial crisis or a political crisis; it is much deeper than that. It is a crisis of principles and governance.
It may sound old-fashioned, but I believe we need a 'back to basics' approach. The excesses of the last 50 years are just not sustainable. The ever increasing gap between Wall Street and Main Street just cannot continue to increase indefinitely. We need to return to a more open and honest way of living that emphasises the importance of integrity.
Although I recognise that the culture of greed is not going to go away overnight, in the end individuals need to be held accountable for the consequences of their actions.
BL I felt that many of the underlying messages in the book were quite revolutionary, in the sense that you do appear to be challenging a great deal of what is currently going on and the way people, especially many of those at the top, carry on. How do we get people to think differently about these issues, as a first step to getting them to behave differently?
HvS Behavioural change is the most difficult to achieve. Most of the people at the top are ruthless, and have often got there by pushing their egos to the limit. Some people argue that these individuals are driven by inner demons to prove themselves, combined with an ingrained fear of failure. We have been led to believe that if you want to make it to the top, you have to be nasty - you have to step on people.
Of course, there are also plenty of exceptions who have made it to the top by being inherently decent, and these individuals are much more likely to be leaving a longer lasting, positive legacy.
BL There is increasing evidence to support the view that individuals who pursue the ego-driven model end up destroying their organisations, or sometimes even nation states.
HvS I agree, and one contributing factor to why Lehman Bros wasn't bailed out in the recent financial crisis was the character of Dick Fuld. He was extremely proud of the way he had built up the company and believed that he 'had all the answers'. He ridiculed his competitors and he wasn't liked in the investment banking world. So, when the chips were down, he had no friends willing to help him out. Another factor was the general lack of transparency.
BL It is, perhaps, not surprising, but problematic, that success can so easily lead to arrogance and complacency, which arises when people are not very good at listening. Unfortunately, the concept of leadership appears to have been hijacked by the charismatic and celebrity culture.
How do we start making the changes that get us back to the basics of what real leadership is or, at least, should be about, which is a values-driven activity?
HvS I have tried to be as practical as possible in the book, and to look at the basic building blocks of authentic leadership. It was not a coincidence that the first chapter was about resilience. If you want to achieve anything meaningful, you need to be able to bounce back when the chips are down. Today the economic paradigm is certainly shifting. I am still very optimistic about what has been achieved, but we are in the middle of cataclysmic changes. We need resilience in order to reinvent ourselves, and not to give up in the face of difficulties. It isn't easy, but it is a vitally important, basic mind set.
BL The importance of resilience certainly came out in the mountain climbing part of your book. But I am slightly worried about this emphasis, as it is, essentially, a quantitative measure and doesn't tell us anything about the end that resilience is being used for. You could easily argue that Hitler had resilience.
Don't we need to focus on the personality traits that are going to be helpful to us all over the long term?
HvS That is why I look on all the elements that I have covered in my book as building blocks. You need all of them and they need to be applied to the vision and mission. We all need to ask what is the legacy? It is vital for leaders to ask themselves whether they are really putting the mission before their ego.
We need to build a leadership framework that appeals to a higher nature, which reflects the greater good for everyone. This approach doesn't mean that we lose our identity, only that it comes from achieving the mission; this means that the mission needs to be seen to be much more important than our individual egos.
It is this priority that makes all the difference to the quality of the decisions that we take. It is vitally important for those at the top not to surround themselves with people who will just tell them what they want to hear; 'the leader' needs to be told what he needs to hear. There is no silver bullet, but there are important lessons that can be learned from our experience and history.
BLThat requires leaders to recognise that they don't have all the answers. So they need to start by asking the right questions and really listening to what other people have to say. But are we setting the right values-driven leadership example today for the rest of the world? Are places like Africa and China going to learn from our mistakes?
HvS It is, potentially, even more dangerous in the emerging markets, because at least we tend to have a number of checks and balances in our systems that attempt to minimise the scope and effects of the abuse of power. The American use of limited terms has not only been valuable in itself but it has been accepted as good practice by a number of countries in Latin America, although not by many in Africa where I am sure it would have helped avoid some of the excesses that we have seen in recent years. It is important for those at the top not to stay around too long; their position is a privilege and should not be seen as a right.
Checks and balances have been developed as an attempt to counteract potential abuses of power. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, these checks and balances are still very underdeveloped. But it is important to recognise that it has taken many decades for the West to develop the necessary checks and balances that help to ensure that decisions really are taken in the long-term interests of everyone - and we still have plenty of problems too.
A key role of anyone in any leadership position is to manage the process of succession. I am deeply concerned where there appears to be no moral compass and the prime motive for living appears to be just the accumulation of more and more stuff. If that is all, where does that leave us as a planet? As a human family? These vacuums need to be filled by something both more meaningful and more sustainable.
BL One point your book emphasises, rightly in my view, is that the issues of leadership and those of teams are deeply and inexorably linked. This means that, in essence, leadership certainly isn't just about people at the top, it is about everybody. Until we start from that assumption, we are not really going to make progress. For example, in your climb, a critical factor was all the help you received from all the porters and support staff. You would never have made it without all their support.
People at the top of any organisation are only there because a large number of other people are doing all sorts of support activities reasonably well.
HvSThe saying it is lonely at the top is not a meaningful comment for a real leader. Leaders take people with them; they are part of a team. The objective of the climb was to develop and encourage everyone to believe that they can achieve more than they previously believed possible. We needed to focus on helping each other to achieve more. That is what real leadership is about. It is not about ego-driven activities, and achieving things possessively for one's own benefit. It is that greater collective good that makes it all worthwhile in the end.
What we need is compassionate capitalism. The difficult question is how do we get there? We have the checks and balances up to a point, but we also need to make sure that we get the right leaders to the top of organisations, where they are truly held accountable for the performance of their organisations in the widest sense, not just for their short-term quarterly profits.
It is such a Catch 22 dilemma. Both the extremes of communism and capitalism have weaknesses, where it is too easy for ruthless elites to end up perpetuating their own self interests. The profit motive on its own can also be very damaging, as society must also be concerned with how that profit is made, and what is done with the surplus. Unless those other dimensions are included, the capitalist system is just not sustainable.
Hence the need for compassionate capitalism: we must be able to manage our finances efficiently, but that must be combined with being aware of social costs and benefits. We need to be concerned with both the creation of wealth and how it is distributed and used; otherwise it will result in a system that is just not sustainable.
Importance of faith
BLYou mention the importance of faith and how that is the cultural root that determines both our values and the importance of compassion.
HvSThis whole issue was brought home to me in my recent visit to South Africa, which has - at least for many - been based during the past couple of decades on the concept of forgiveness, lead by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I am convinced that, without this emphasis, there would have been much less progress over this period, possibly even none.
The concept of faith is very important to me but that is very different to being enthusiastic about organised religion, as that is too often prone to the abuses of unchecked power, as in politics and other organisational situations. Faith teaches us about humility, forgiveness and compassion. If we believe we are here for a purpose, it helps us develop these characteristics.
BLSome people would argue that faith-related issues are also what drive much extremism and fundamentalism. In addition, many people who are driven by faith-related convictions tend to have a strong belief that they are right, which makes them poor listeners - and doesn't that then make them poor leaders?
HvSThose issues are sometimes a problem, especially if people get preoccupied with being at the top of their organisation. It is not about having power; it is much more about how that power is used. It is all about getting the relationship between self and others in balance, in a way that is mutually beneficial and sustainable.
BLDo you feel the tide moving with you? Or do you feel that you are hitting your head against a brick wall?
HvS I believe we are seeing movement in a positive direction. We are certainly experiencing a severe financial and political crisis. But it is even more a moral crisis. Thinking people want solid and sensible leadership, and I do believe the tide is turning. Serious questions are being asked about fairness and how that is compatible with some of the salary differentials that we see today.
Overall, I am an optimist and consider that times of uncertainty are great opportunities to shift in the direction I have suggested.
BL Thank you for a most readable and relevant book, and for your insightful comments.
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