Scaling New Heights: Unforgettable Leadership Lessons from Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

Life’s greatest lessons often come from unexpected places. For me, it was an arduous journey to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak. The experience, though physically exhausting, provided me with valuable insights about leadership and personal growth, which I will share in this blog post.

The Full Journey: More Than Just Reaching the Top

Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, once said, “Every success story is a tale of constant adaptation, revision and change.” My encounter with the summit of Kilimanjaro made me realize the depth of Branson’s wisdom. Conquering the peak was only half of the journey; the rest was all about the descent – finishing what was started. Initially, my focus, much like many ambitious leaders, was solely on reaching the ‘top.’ I was blindsided by the challenge of getting back down. This is a powerful metaphor for the business world where reaching the peak – whether it’s launching a successful product, scaling your business, or becoming a market leader – is an incredible achievement, but maintaining that success and adapting to the subsequent challenges can be equally, if not more, demanding.

To prepare for the climb, I spent a year hiking, realizing from my research that actual hiking and climbing often yield better results than gym workouts. This notion became evident when comparing my performance to that of other climbers. My fitness strategy reflected the importance of readiness for the entirety of the journey, not just the initial rise to success.

As a leadership speaker and business growth coach, I’ve helped clients navigate unknown situations. Like a descent from a mountain peak, leading a business through uncharted territories requires clear communication, empathy, and patience. Understanding the full journey means acknowledging that reaching the peak, whether it’s launching a successful product or becoming a market leader, is just the beginning. The real test is maintaining that success and navigating the subsequent challenges.

Embracing the ‘Pole Pole’ Philosophy

The Swahili phrase ‘Pole Pole’ – slowly, slowly – became a mantra during my climb. This isn’t about moving at a snail’s pace, but rather adopting a sustainable rhythm to prevent exhaustion or burnout. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, reflected this idea when he talked about work-life harmony rather than balance.

Our daily routines on Kilimanjaro embodied the ‘Pole Pole’ philosophy. We prepared meticulously each morning and paced ourselves throughout the day. If one person needed a rest, everyone took a rest. This approach reminds us to prioritize and do what’s necessary for success in the workplace.

As a coach, I often encounter leaders who try to do everything themselves. They struggle with work-life balance and burnout. By practicing the ‘Pole Pole’ approach, they learn to delegate and balance their professional and personal lives, fostering a harmonious, productive environment.

Unity in Sharing and Caring

On Kilimanjaro, the smallest gesture of sharing a snack or offering encouraging words created strong bonds within our team. This reminded me of Arianna Huffington’s philosophy of redefining success beyond money and power to include well-being, wisdom, and our ability to wonder and give back.

We started our journey as strangers but quickly learned the importance of cooperation. When a porter fell ill, everyone willingly shared the load to ensure the group’s success. This experience mirrored my own leadership experiences where thoughtful, intentional acts created a strong, cooperative culture within an organization.

To foster this culture in your organization, it starts with leaders. Create a space for sharing and caring, and place your staff’s needs before your own. Frequent check-ins and open discussions foster a culture of empathy and understanding. This communal spirit not only benefits the individuals but also fuels the success of the whole team.

The Power of Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs)

Setting a goal to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro was no small task. This audacious goal, however, fueled my determination and led to a multitude of smaller achievements. This experience mirrored the concept of “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” (BHAG), popularized by renowned management guru Jim Collins in his book “Built to Last.”

BHAGs are a powerful catalyst for both personal and professional growth. They encourage you to set your sights high and serve as a driving force to push you beyond what you thought was possible. One of my clients set a BHAG to grow their business from 5 to 20 million, an overwhelming task considering it had taken them 15 years to reach 5 million. With their sights set on this new goal, their entire company shifted to a growth mindset, and they nearly doubled their revenue in just one year.

Final Thoughts

My journey up and down Mt. Kilimanjaro, as challenging as it was, gifted me with invaluable insights about leadership and personal growth. These lessons from the highest peak in Africa have enriched my perspective as a business growth coach. Whether you’re navigating the challenging terrains of business growth or embarking on your leadership journey, I hope these insights inspire you to aim for peak performance.